There are screw-ups and then there are screw-ups, and then there’s the disastrous holiday scheduling shitstorm ravaging Southwest Airlines right now. Though the airline initially blamed its tidal wave of mass flight cancellations and delays on unavoidable winter storms, an enraged pilot and union representative at the airliner says something far more controllable may have played a role: old software.
In an interview with Insider this week, Vice President of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association Mike Santoro admitted harsh winter weather played a role in the delays but went on to blame the sustained obliteration of flights on “outdated” software. Santoro said the systems responsible for keeping up with pilots’ and flight attendants’ locations were quickly overwhelmed, forcing schedulers to start keeping tabs by hand. In some cases, Santoro said flights were being canceled entirely due to a lack of staff though sufficient amounts of flight attendants and other workers were onboard and willing to work.
“Even though we had a crew available, [scheduling] had no idea those flight attendants were in the back of the airplane,” Santoro said. “The problem is the software just doesn’t keep track of us.”
Southwest flight attendant union president Lyn Montgomery reiterated those concerns in a recent interview with Houston’s KHOU, saying flight attendants relied on an “outdated” phone rescheduling system that was easily overbooked.
“You simply can’t make enough phone calls, you can’t make thousands of phone calls at once,” Montgomery said. Southwest, for its part, issued a new statement on Tuesday saying “operational conditions” and unprecedented volume challenged its flight scheduling tools.
In an email, a spokesperson from Southwest declined to answer Gizmodo’s questions about the alleged scheduling software and instead directed us to a recent video statement from CEO Bob Jordan in which he called the disaster a “giant puzzle.”
“Our network is highly complex and the operation of the airline counts on all the pieces, especially aircraft and crews remaining in motion to where they’re planned to go,” Jordan said. “After days of trying to operate as much of our full schedule across the busy holiday weekend, we reached a decision point to significantly reduce our flying to catch up.”
It’s difficult to overstate the scale of holiday chaos inflicted by Southwest’s sudden scheduling collapse. The airline alone has reportedly canceled 15,700 flights since December 22 and is still scrapping flights at the time of writing. While plenty of other airlines moved to cancel their operations in response to inclement weather, the pain wasn’t proportional. On Wednesday, according to flight tracking website FlightAware, 2,507 of the 2,770 cancellations made for flights within, into, or out of the U.S. were operated, yep you guessed it, by Southwest. The airline was responsible for 84% of all canceled flights within or out of the U.S. on Tuesday, December 29.
Those allegations of issues with the company’s internal scheduling software have provoked a backlash from thousands of heartbroken travelers, livid lawmakers, and more recently, suspicious officials at the Department of Transportation.
“Southwest cannot avoid compensating passengers by claiming these flight cancellations were caused by recent winter storms,” Democratic senators Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal, wrote in a joint statement Tuesday. “As Southwest executives have acknowledged, the mass cancellations yesterday were largely due to the failure of its own internal systems. As such, those cancellations should be categorized as ‘controllable,’ and Southwest should compensate passengers accordingly.”
The senators accused Southwest of “failing” thousands of customers, many of whom watched helplessly as their family holiday plans withered before their eyes. In addition to rebooking delayed or canceled flights, the senators said the airline should commit to “significant monetary compensation for the disruption.”
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNN this week he discussed issues with “legacy systems” for scheduling during a conversation with CEO Bob Jordan. The former Democratic presidential nominee went on to say, “their [Southwest’s] system really has completely melted down.”
“I made clear that our department will be holding them accountable for their responsibilities to customers, both to get them through this situation and to make sure that this can’t happen again,” Buttigieg added.
Meanwhile, Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation chair Maria Cantwell said her committee will launch an investigation probing the root causes of the Southwest disaster. Other lawmakers like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren used the opportunity to draw attention to a rise in corporate consolidation overtaking the airlines industry, which she blamed in part for leaving U.S. travelers unable to find viable flight alternatives.