Southwest Airlines canceled thousands of flights over the past week as a result of the disruption caused by a historic winter storm and subsequent staff and scheduling problems.
On Tuesday the airline announced 2,600 cancellations, followed by 2,500 more for Wednesday and 1,400 on Thursday as the company sought to “reposition our people and planes.”
Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan apologized for the disruption, admitting the company’s systems had failed in the face of “extreme circumstances.”
On Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg described the company’s problems as a “system failure,” during an appearance on ABC‘s Good Morning America, and said it was “past the point” where the weather alone could be blamed.
Senator Elizabeth Warren blamed the “disaster” on the “consolidation in the airline industry,” which she claimed left customers with “fewer choices & higher prices.”
Karl Moore, an associate professor at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management in Quebec, described Southwest Airlines as “one of the U.S. greatest airline stories,” noting its low-cost model had been emulated by companies across the world, including Canada and Europe.
However, he told Newsweek, the company “truly fell short this last week or so.”
“Of course, winter weather was the trigger event. But winter storms are no surprise around Christmas…Other airlines suffered very much as well but Southwest, unfortunately, stood out,” Moore said.
“What reports from within Southwest suggest is that inadequate staffing caused by Southwest’s outdated employee scheduling system. It may well be that Southwest has relied too long on a system that very much needs to be brought up to date. Perhaps this is an area where Southwest has been too low cost in their spending.”
The professor said this week’s disruption is unlikely the “death knell” for Southwest, as the company is “too important a part of the U.S. airline industry,” but added the disruption will “hurt them for sure” and needs to be “fixed pronto.”
Professor Marc-David L. Seidel from the UBC Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia told Newsweek that Southwest Airlines’ “low-cost model” had left it with “very little buffer room” for problems.
“Historically, Southwest Airlines has always focused on a low-cost model that squeezes costs out of the system. When everything is operating smoothly this appears as very efficient, with quick turnaround times and low costs,” Seidel said.
“But the trade-off is that there is very little buffer room in the system to deal with unexpected events such as crew shortages, illnesses, extreme weather events, system-wide delays, etc. This is intensified by current tensions with labor and outdated IT and scheduling systems.
“In essence, these have all come together to create a non-stable system that will take a while to reset compared to other airlines that operate with more buffer in their systems and more modern scheduling systems.”
Seidel said the transport chaos “does not have to be terminal for Southwest,” echoing Moore’s argument.
To recover, he said the company needs to “update their systems, improve relationships with labor, build more buffer and redundancy into their overall system, and attempt to make things right for all those affected by this meltdown with sincere and significant customer service gestures.”
Newsweek reached out to Southwest Airlines for comment.
The post How Southwest Airlines Went From World’s Best to ‘Disaster’ appeared first on Newsweek.