James Williams

The Southwest Debacle

I've worked for an airline before...when multiple hurricanes hit Florida in a short span. I was told I was ruining their weddings/vacations/etc. People straight up lied to me when I had all the evidence to prove it and then cussed me out when I had to call out their lies. I think I've earned a small soapbox to rant about the recent events. Here are the things I think contributed to the catastrophic failure at Southwest:

Problem 1: Point to point flying.

A point to point system relies on the system being generally healthy because you have aircraft coming from wherever going to wherever. So instead of weather(WX) at origin and destination, as a passenger I have to think about WX at every other city that flight has visited before me. This makes for a bad customer experience because "why is my flight delayed or CXLD but not this flight that leaves later?" is a thing. Hub/Spoke do suffer greatly when there is bad WX at a major hub, but it's usually contained somewhat and there is a prioritization of which flights will get takeoff slots (usually international, then hub to hub).

Problem 2: Seating.

Being a decently tall dude, seat anxiety made me stay away from Southwest. The boarding group + number helps a bit but the problem for me is the fact that on Southwest, your boarding pass is a not really a guaranteed seat. They don't by policy overbook (as in intentionally sell more seats than are available) but in the case of a cancellation, reduced capacity/positive space employees, you can end up in an oversold situation (incidentally more passengers than seats). There's a nuance of difference but it's hard for the passenger to understand not unlike the difference between non-stop and direct. The point isn't to hate on open seating but it feels less like I have a guaranteed seat and more like I have a claim ticket to redeem for a seat...maybe that's just me.

Problem 3: Lack of capacity.

Back in the day, I could easily travel non-revenue to Europe with only a small worry of having to kill 4-5 hours at ATL or JFK. Capacity was tight pre-COVID and it still is. Lack of extra capacity means it's harder for the system to absorb passengers from CXLD flights.

Problem 4: Lone wolf mentality.

One little known fact is that while it is not encouraged and nigh impossible to do easily, most airlines can book segments on other airlines. This is beyond what airlines they may codeshare with. These interline agreements allow an airline to handle check-in and carriage of the passenger / baggage. Handoff of baggage usually is seamless. For boarding passes, each airline might reprint the BP in their format but that's a minor inconvenience. This is important in irregular operations(IROP) because airlines with a interline agreement have some capacity to book on other carriers that aren't affected by the same issue.

Southwest by policy doesn't interline with anyone and its capacity isn't even viewable/bookable on the major booking systems. I understand the initial allure when the internet was slow to get folks to come to your site and book. People are more savvy, price check easily and...multiple tabs are a thing.

Problem 5: Lack of tools/That cop

I could be wrong but I've never noticed banks of phones in airports for Southwest to handle changes. At DL, those were called DL Direct and it rang through to me at a higher priority than elite members. I even had more power on those calls because I was deemed to be "at the airport." It was airport, reissues, Skymiles/Elite, General Sales IIRC.

These desks are usually PAST SECURITY. The advice to exit the secure area and talk to the check-in agents endangers the other flights leaving that day because you will have folks with a departing flight mixed in with those who are canceled and if the worst customer service to have found someone a seat but have to let it go because there is no way they'll get through security in ATL before boarding or tell someone that you gave their seat away because they were in line and not checked in because someone told 200 people to get in line ahead of them. When I "protected" a passenger on a flight because they were likely to miss their connection, the boarding pass from the previous flight still scan. If the gate agent had extra time, they would print new boarding cards for the folks, otherwise during boarding, the existing boarding card would spit out a seat assignment ticket. IE STILL VALID IANAL so don't get arrested but staying inside the secure area is in your best interest most of the time.

How does Southwest recover?

It seems like they have been living in the mindset of "if that flight is CXLD, there will be another flight in an hour or two." Climate change affects everything. If that 100 year event becomes a 5, 10, or 20 year event and it's not in your modeling, that's a problem.

I hope the company invests in the tech side. They need to start thinking about themselves as a tech company. Given the other things I didn't touch on like the FAA fines if flight crew goes over their legal limit, perhaps this multi-day shutdown of the full system was the only way to reset things. I wouldn't want to explain this to the customer when all the other airlines are fine. If you are a Southwest passenger, be nice to the agent on the phone, they are trying their hardest to help you. Your salty attitude x 80 or 100 calls is what they've been dealing with on a daily basis. Don't get yourself put in the penalty box or accidentally dropped.