DALLAS- Andrew Watterson, chief operating officer of Southwest Airlines (WN), faced significant challenges last December when a blizzard led to the cancellation of nearly 17,000 flights, causing disruptions for approximately 2 million customers.
As the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday marks the beginning of the holiday travel season this week, Watterson cannot afford another such incident. Counterparts at other airlines are similarly feeling the pressure to ensure a seamless operation during a period when passenger traffic is anticipated to reach record levels.
Southwest Holiday Travel Challenges
Airlines have implemented measures to enhance winter operations, including investments in weather forecast technology, de-icing equipment, and increased staffing and training.
The significant operational breakdown incurred by Southwest amounted to over $1 billion and drew scrutiny from the U.S. Congress and various government agencies. In the aftermath, Andrew Watterson, the executive in charge, faced criticism from U.S. lawmakers.
In an interview with Reuters, Watterson highlighted Southwest’s technological upgrades and investments since the meltdown in Dallas, asserting that the airline is now much better prepared to handle any weather-related challenges this year.
The anticipated surge in travel coincides with challenges in the airline industry, such as a shortage of air traffic controllers, congested airspace, and constraints on runways and airport gates, leading many companies to reduce flights.
Southwest attributed its service disruption during the previous Christmas to an unprecedented winter storm, characterized by its historic size and scale, resulting in frozen jet bridges and icy aircraft engines. An outdated system for crew scheduling further exacerbated the airline’s challenges.
New Investments for Improvements
Watterson explained that Southwest made strategic investments in de-icing trucks and pads across its network to enhance its winter operations resilience.
Additionally, the airline conducted summer training for ramp agents, specifically focusing on frost and cold temperatures, and increased staff levels at airports in colder climates.
The airline consolidated teams responsible for designing flight schedules and overseeing operations to improve communication and decision-making efficiency. Southwest also introduced new technology to manage large-scale flight disruptions.
While Southwest is facing a civil fine from the U.S. Transportation Department for last year’s incident, Watterson acknowledged the company’s shortcomings but emphasized subsequent improvements in operational performance.
He noted that the percentage of Southwest’s scheduled flights not being canceled is at a 10-year high, and the company successfully navigated a snowstorm in Denver last month with minimal issues.
Describing last year’s challenges as a “pre-season game,” Watterson mentioned that despite a dip in ticket sales in early 2023, customer forgiveness is evident as bookings for this December are stronger than the previous year.
Other US Airlines Preparation
The disruptions during the holiday season have also prompted evaluations at other airlines.
For instance, Alaska Airlines (AS) is actively enhancing its capacity to handle weather challenges at its primary Seattle hub. In an interview, Chief Operating Officer Constance von Muehlen stated that the company has collaborated with meteorologists at the University of Washington to acquire localized weather forecasts for improved predictability.
Additionally, Alaska has doubled the available space for de-icing planes and implemented a cap on the number of departures per hour from Seattle to minimize cancellations.
Similarly, United Airlines (UA) has reduced flights from Newark, New Jersey, to minimize delays. American Airlines (AA) is leveraging technology to expedite recovery from large-scale disruptions, as mentioned by COO David Seymour in an interview.
Delta Air Lines (DL) has reported strong operational performance leading into the holiday season, emphasizing its advantageous position in terms of crew availability.
Despite encouraging overall performance this year, with flight cancellations reduced to just 1.4%, according to FlightAware website data, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) informed the U.S. Congress earlier this month that airlines are better staffed and prepared for this year’s holiday rush.
However, as Constance von Muehlen pointed out, weather remains unpredictable. She noted, “We never quite know when the weather will hit us, but, obviously, it’s most impactful when it occurs during the holiday.”
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