Southwest: ‘We know we messed up’ on the Holiday meltdown

Southwest Airlines confessed that the airline "messed up" in front of a US Senate Committee
Jeramey Lende /

Southwest Airlines Chief Operating Officer (COO) Andrew Watterson has appeared in front of a United States (US) Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, shedding new light on the meltdown that occurred between the Holidays of 2022. 

‘Let me be clear: we messed up. In hindsight, we did not have enough winter operational resilience,’ Watterson’s pre-written statement read. The COO added that any reimbursement requests that were ‘well documented and under $4,000’ were approved on the spot, noting that the airline covered travelers’ costs for ‘tire chains, strollers, car seats, pet sitting but things we didn’t reimburse were things like $7,000 shopping sprees at luxury stores or chartering a private jet’. 

Watterson noted that what was initially a bad weather event on December 21, 2022, ‘turned into a crew scheduling event’ on December 24, 2022. The airline canceled 16,700 flights, forcing it to write off $800 million in Q4 2022, which the airline ended with a net loss of $220 million. 

READ MORE: Southwest Airlines ends Q4 2022 with $220 million loss after operational meltdown 

Worse weather than expected 

While the executive noted that the carrier ‘developed a plan that included pre-canceling flights to reduce activity to an hourly rate that was consistent with our proven capabilities’, weather conditions ‘were worse than forecast, which had a wide-ranging impact on our station operations, especially at Denver and Chicago Midway’. 

Watterson continued: ‘During this time period, we struggled to keep the operation moving at these key airports due to a number of factors, including the amount of de-icing equipment and related infrastructure, the effect of the extreme cold on jet bridge hydraulics and ground support equipment fuel, and even, for example, the location of our gates and deicing pads’. According to the COO, 25% of the airline’s crews are based at two airports: Denver International Airport (DEN) and Chicago’s Midway Airport (MDW). 

Weather factors, amongst others, prevented Southwest Airlines from executing its plan, which resulted in a snowball effect of flight cancellations throughout the US. As such, the airline decided to cut its flight activities by two-thirds between December 27 and December 29, 2022, allowing the company to gain time to reset its network and get ‘crews and aircraft into their needed positions so that we could return to normal flight levels’ on December 30, 2022. 

‘Let me conclude by reiterating that Southwest is intensely focused on reducing the risk of repeating the operational disruption we experienced in December,’ Watterson’s testimony concluded. 

However, Southwest Airlines Pilots Association’s (SWAPA) President Captain Casey Murray was not convinced, claiming that SWAPA has been ‘sounding the alarm about SWA’s inadequate crew scheduling technology and outdated operational processes for years’. The alarms were ignored, according to Murray’s pre-written statement, and SWAPA pilots’ ‘hearts were broken when those alarms proved accurate in December 2022’. 

The union indicated that it will vote on whether to strike in May 2023. Following a vote count the same month, it will proceed further. Murray stated: ‘Given the trajectory of our current leadership group, we have little faith in the stability and future of our airline’. 

‘By now, it should be clear what conditions led our country’s most stable and profitable airline – SWA – to a historic meltdown like holiday travelers suffered in December of 2022,’ Murray’s testimony to the Committee continued. ‘But, like most disasters, it didn’t happen overnight.’ 

Warning signs were ignored. Poor performance was condoned. Excuses were made. Processes atrophied. Core values were forgotten,’ he concluded. 

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