Southwest Airlines Cancels Hundreds of Flights After Weekend Disruption

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More than 360 flights were canceled after 1,900 cancellations over the weekend due to air-traffic control issues and bad weather

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The weekend slowdown poses challenges that many US airlines, and Southwest in particular, have been grappling with since the summer, as travel is returning faster than carriers anticipated.

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Spirit Airlines Inc.

August canceled 2,826 flights over a 10-day period – scrubbing more than 60% of its flights on some days – during a similar cascade of bad weather, technical system constraints and staffing shortages. American Airlines Group Inc.

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It scaled back its schedule in July after a series of storms in June created tensions. But while other airlines have managed to get operations under control, Southwest’s plan has been mired in a spiral of missteps and labor stress.

Southwest believed it was ready to handle heavy traffic for the Columbus Day holiday weekend, but the airline said a confluence of unforeseen events called it off.

The trigger came on Friday when air-traffic control issues, including severe weather and ground-delay events in Florida, resulted in a large number of cancellations. Mike Van de Ven, the airline’s president and chief operating officer, said about half of Southwest’s aircraft fly from Florida on any given day, so disruptions could occur for the rest of the country.

Mr van de Ven said that by the end of Friday, hundreds of aircraft and crew members were not where they should have been, leading to a chain reaction that took days to resolve. This bumped up against limits on how long pilots and flight attendants could work, so the airline had to pull flight crew from reserve. With thousands of trips on the books without a full complement of crew, the airline had to cancel flights and ferry aircraft to attempt to reset itself.

“It took us Saturday and Sunday for the network to really stabilize,” Mr van de Ven said in an interview. “Hopefully by Wednesday morning we will be completely back to normal.”

The episode has been a disappointing re-emergence of a plight that the airline’s leadership believed it had managed. In June, a series of technical problems halted Southwest’s operations for several days, leading to hundreds of cancellations. About one-third of the airline’s flights came late in the summer, compared to about 21% in 2019, according to Cirium, an airline-data provider. Southwest officials have apologized to passengers and staff, pledging to run more reliable operations.

Shares of Southwest fell 4.2% on Monday to $51.67.

A major problem this summer is employees, airline executives said. The carriers received $54 billion in federal aid to continue paying workers during the pandemic, but with an uncertain outlook encouraging thousands to retire early or take longer periods of absence.

About 5,000 workers in Southwest were on permanent leave and 11,000 had gone on extended leave. Southwest officials have said that once demand changed, the airline struggled to recall them and retrain them quickly.

At the same time, Southwest embarked on an ambitious program in an effort to capture growing demand. Announcing plans to launch service to 18 new destinations to tap into new markets in search of revenue, the airline seized what it saw as an opportunity to expand its reach during the pandemic. But the plan also left its resources thin. With fewer flights between pairs of cities and packed planes, officials have said it has been harder to bounce back from storms or technical problems.

Airline staffing models rely on assumptions about how many pilots will take open trips, how many will be sick or on medical leave or in training. This year, the Covid-19 disease and quarantine have also made an impact. During most of the summer, Southwest offered increased overtime pay in an effort to prevent staff shortages.

“It’s clear to me that we were too aggressive to go into the summer with those assumptions,” Mr Van de Ven said.

The airline had planned this fall in an effort to ease tensions and hold on to hiring and built up a large reserve of crew on call for assistance this month. In recent weeks, about 80% of Southwest’s flights were on time – a sign of improvement, Mr van de Ven told staff in a message on Sunday.

But Southwest was also planning more flights on Sunday than any other day since April 13, 2020, according to data from Cirium, leaving the airline with no cushion.

Snoring this summer has contributed to tensions between Southwest and the union that represents its pilots. The union said the weekend’s problems were a sign that pilots’ concerns, which had been raised for months, were yet to be addressed.

Captain Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, wrote in a message to members Sunday night: “What was a minor temporary event for other carriers devastated in the Southwest as our operation has become brittle and subject to massive failures. ” .

Mr Van de Ven said that ultimately, the airline probably should have cut its flight plans further this month, and Southwest is now looking at whether it should fly again in November and December. Expanding to new cities was the right decision, he said, but the airline is rethinking how it plans and balances the trade-off between generating revenue and running a reliable operation. For example, the Southwest should have higher staffing levels than otherwise.

“We want to make sure that we provide a reliable product to our customers and of course our employees, and that has enough cushion, there is enough flexibility, that we can outperform ourselves when we have these kinds of setbacks. can be done,” he said.

Southwest and the union that represents the airline’s pilots backtracked on suggestions that it was calling pilots sick in protest of Southwest’s plans announced last week to require vaccinating employees. The airline has said it will need vaccinations by December 8 for government contractors to comply with the new federal rules.

“The weekend’s challenges were not the result of employee performance, as some have reported,” the company said in a statement.

The union’s Mr Murray said in an interview that sick calls are in line with summer levels and pilots are offering to work unscheduled trips at higher rates.

Alison Cider at [email protected]

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