Daily Memo: Southwest Admits Need To Overhaul Its Winter Readiness

Southwest Airlines
Credit: Southwest Airlines

Facing scrutiny on Capitol Hill, Southwest Airlines is continuing to evaluate the factors driving its historic holiday meltdown at the end of 2022. 

And while the company’s crew scheduling technology initially garnered major attention, the root cause is much simpler—a failure in the resiliency of the airline’s operations during the winter.  

Southwest COO Andrew Watterson faced lawmakers during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on Feb. 9. 

Watterson said that before the winter storm—which resulted in over 16,000 flight cancellations—Southwest had a plan in place “that included pre-canceling flights to reduce activity to an hourly rate that was consistent with our proven capabilities.” 

But the winter storms upended those capabilities. Watterson said that sub-zero temperatures, high winds, and frozen participation were worse than forecast, which resulted in Southwest struggling to keep its operation moving at Denver International Airport and Chicago Midway. Roughly 25% of Southwest’s crews are based at those airports. 

Southwest’s procedure for winter operations is examining throughput of aircraft per hour it can effectively de-ice at different levels of storms, Watterson said. Its initial plan was based on previous modeling of “how much we could, per hour, handle on our de-icing pads in Denver and Midway based on history. Those proved to be incorrect for this storm,” he said. 

“The winter operations were too much for us,” Watterson said 

To stave off another operational meltdown, Southwest needs more infrastructure at airports for de-icing and needs to weatherize its ground equipment, Watterson said. 

Southwest recently upgraded its crew scheduling system that was overloaded during the meltdown with too many close-in cancellations, but Watterson concluded “we believe our winter operations resilience was the root cause, and that will take longer to address.” 

Now, Southwest is conducting a “top to bottom” review of its winter operations, Watterson said. “We already know in Denver and Midway we need substantial upgrades and we’re already pursuing that with the airports,” he added. 

While the issues Southwest faced are straightforward enough, other airlines faced the same winter storm with much fewer negative effects. 

Denver’s largest carrier United Airlines is capitalizing on its positive operational performance by airing a television ad during the Super Bowl touting that during the holiday period it “got more families in and out of Denver than any other airline, despite the weather.” 

United has calculated that from Dec. 18 to Jan. 5, it canceled 5.5% of its scheduled seats in Denver compared with 27.4% at Southwest. Data from CAPA and OAG show Southwest is Denver’s second largest airline measured by departing frequencies with a 29% share behind United’s share of 51%. 

Executives from United recently said the company’s smoother operations during the holiday period were rooted in investments in several areas including technology and infrastructure upgrades, increased spare aircraft, and dispatching employees from other areas in its system to Denver during times of higher stress. 

During the hearing, Watterson had to explain that while there were technological challenges during the operational chaos that Southwest is addressing through various investments, the airline plans to focus “over a multi-year period” in improving its operations in the winter.  

Southwest’s miscalculation in its ability to handle the adverse weather conditions was the first domino to fall, Watterson said, and the crew scheduling system “not being able to function as we’d like” was the last domino knocked down. 

As Southwest works to righten its fallen dominos, lawmakers want concrete assurances from the airline that another meltdown won’t happen in the future. 

“We’re always going to have these weather events, and some of us believe they’re going to become more severe,” Commerce Committee Chair Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said. “But what we want is to have a system that is ready to address that and talk about the alternatives.”

Lori Ranson

Lori covers North American and Latin airlines for Aviation Week and is also a Senior Analyst for CAPA - Centre for Aviation.