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‘It’s a mess down here.’ Southwest pilots detail the Christmas meltdown chaos

<i>Kirby Lee/AP</i><br/>Southwest Airlines planes are seen here parked at Gates D4 and D6 in Terminal 4 of the Sky Harbor International Airport on December 30
Kirby Lee/AP
Southwest Airlines planes are seen here parked at Gates D4 and D6 in Terminal 4 of the Sky Harbor International Airport on December 30

By Gregory Wallace

Congress is set to receive new evidence Thursday of internal chaos at Southwest Airlines over the Christmas holiday meltdown.

The pilots’ union is prepared to characterize the operation as held together by “duct tape,” while Southwest’s chief operating officer is expected to apologize and say the airline “is intensely focused on reducing the risk of repeating the operational disruption.”

Among the union’s evidence is a message sent during the meltdown to a cockpit computer from the airline’s dispatchers asking what crew is onboard the plane.

“Sched is asking to confirm who is operating this flight,” the message read. “Pls send emp numbers to confirm. It’s a mess down here.”

A photograph of the message, which shows the extent of the airline’s breakdown, is included in testimony the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association union, SWAPA, plans to present at a Senate Commerce committee hearing. (The message and others are seen in all capital letters, standard for this type of cockpit display.)

As planes stood still at the height of the debacle, crewmembers sat stranded, unable to communicate with their dispatchers and schedulers.

“No updates here,” another cockpit computer message to pilots read. “Scheduling is so far behind we were told we aren’t allowed to walk over and talk to them.”

Lawmakers are set to question Southwest executive Andrew Watterson, alongside Southwest pilot union president Casey Murray, Sharon Pinkerton of the Airlines for America trade group, Paul Hudson of Flyers’ Rights, and economist Clifford Winston of The Brookings Institution.

The massive meltdown began in the wake of a large winter storm at Christmastime, one of the busiest travel windows of the year. But while other airlines managed to recover their schedules, Southwest’s legacy technology and manual scheduling processes could not keep up with the rate of changes.

More than 16,700 flights were canceled and 2 million passengers stranded, scuttling holiday plans and leaving mountains of unclaimed baggage nationwide. Southwest CEO Bob Jordan apologized and the airline offered reimbursements for passengers’ costs, along with bonus points. The Department of Transportation is investigating, including whether the airline scheduled more flights than it could handle.

The pilots’ union is prepared to testify that Watterson and Jordan, who took office just over a year ago, “inherited a massive, complex operation held together by duct tape and baling wire.” Technology failures were predictable and avoidable because the system has failed multiple times “with increasing frequency and magnitude.”

“Since 2011, SWA has averaged one major operational failure every 18 months,” the testimony says. “Warning signs were ignored. Poor performance was condoned. Excuses were made. Processes atrophied. Core values were forgotten.”

The testimony also provides new details about what was happening behind the scenes while the airline’s schedule fell apart.

The union says the airline operated more than 500 empty flights to reposition planes — and it contends the aircraft could have carried passengers. More than 10,000 pilots rode in passenger seats, headed to another assignment in a choreography the union called “inefficient.”

Southwest declined to comment on the union’s allegations ahead of the hearing.

A copy of Watterson’s testimony, obtained by CNN, includes an apology to travelers and employees for the disruption. It shows he is prepared to say the difficulty of recovering from the storm “created an unprecedented amount and frequency of required changes to Crew schedules that overwhelmed our Crew Scheduling processes and technology.”

Southwest says it has been testing a scheduling software update, launched a new team in its command center, improved telephone systems, and is investing in better preparedness for cold weather.

Watterson is set to say the airline “had an opportunity to test some of these newly-implemented mitigation efforts” when the FAA grounded all departures nationwide last month due to its own computer failure.

The union criticized the airline for giving executives stock options in the wake of the meltdown while employees lost profit sharing pay because of the airline’s financial hit due to the meltdown. The airline did agree to give some employee groups hardship pay.

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