Southwest Airlines debacle prompts renewed union demands

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A traveler wades through the field of unclaimed bags at the Southwest Airlines luggage carousels at Denver International Airport, Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2022, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

(NewsNation) — Southwest Airlines has been melting down since a major winter storm stopped flights across the country, but while the weather might have been the catalyst for the mass cancellations, airline employees told NewsNation that outdated scheduling systems exacerbated the situation.

According to the airline’s union workers, the fiasco was not only preventable, but also employees warned of it months in advance.

“The holiday meltdown has been blamed on weather that had been forecast five days prior, but this problem began many years ago when the complexity of our network outgrew its ability to withstand meteorological and technological disruptions,” the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association said in an official statement Wednesday.

While other airlines are nearly back to normal operations, Southwest has continued to spiral downward, canceling thousands of flights and leaving stranded travelers scrambling for alternate plans.

Now, the union is calling for investment in infrastructure that will improve conditions for both passengers and pilots. That includes crew-scheduling software, a modernized collective bargaining agreement and communication tools “that would have allowed for displaced crews to remain in constant contact with our Company,” SWAPA said.

Those same needs were communicated to current CEO Bob Jordan and his predecessor Gary Kelly, according to SWAPA.

Southwest has been the subject of criticism since canceling about 10,000 flights in a matter of days and scrapping more than 60% of its schedule on Wednesday.

The cancellations caused tens of thousands of suitcases to pile up at airports and left travelers rushing to find last-minute lodging and transportation.

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the department is investigating how Southwest handled the situation. He’s promised to hold airline leadership accountable and expects them to compensate customers — especially in light of the COVID-19 bailout airlines received from the federal government.

During an interview Tuesday with Nexstar D.C. Correspondent Hannah Brandt, Buttigieg said remedying the situation will take more than issuing cash refunds for canceled flights.

“… Also making sure that your meals, your hotels, your ground transportation are covered,” he said.

SWAPA President Casey Murray said employees have been calling for new IT systems for years but to no avail.

On a podcast earlier this year, Murray predicted the company was “one thunderstorm, one ATC event, one brownout away from a complete meltdown” as the holiday travel season approached.

“So yes they’ve been notified,” Murray said. “They’re well aware of the risks of the operation and here we are living it.”

Corliss King, vice president of the Union of Southwest Airlines Flight Attendants, noted the company’s culture has also changed.

“The challenge is there was a real shift from the philosophy of taking care of your people so they can take care of your passengers to taking care of your shareholders,” King said.

Southwest plans to pay $428 million in dividends next month, according to the Senate Commerce Committee, which said the airline has enough money to compensate travelers. The committee has promised its own investigation.

Meanwhile, Jordan hasn’t been at Southwest’s helm for long. He became the company’s CEO in February and will step into his role as president on Jan. 1.

His career at the company has spanned more than 30 years and 15 different positions.

Some customers and shareholders have called for his firing after this week’s debacle.

Jordan offered an apology in a video the airline released Tuesday.

“We have some real work to do in making this right,” Jordan said. “For now, I want you to know that we’re committed to that.”

Southwest has stopped booking new flights until Jan. 3, reducing flights to a third of the airline’s usual capacity in an attempt to reset their system and coordinate crew, pilots and planes to get things up and running normally.

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