Expert: Southwest cancellations have more to do with outdated system than winter weather

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Written by WCPO’s Jake Ryle

It’s been a turbulent time for the thousands of people who were hoping to travel this holiday season. Southwest Airlines canceled thousands of flights, leaving tens of thousands of people stranded.

Bob Jordan, CEO of Southwest Airlines, offered a video statement regarding the flight cancelations.

“We’re doing everything we can to return to our normal operation,” he said. “Please also hear that I’m truly sorry.”

Jordan said the airline builds its flight schedule around communities, not hubs.

“Cities where large numbers of scheduled flights simultaneously froze as record bitter cold brought challenges for all airlines,” Jordan said.

Jay Ratliff, an aviation expert, said there’s more to the cancelations than the winter weather. Instead, at the heart of the problem, is the fact that Southwest Airlines uses software for scheduling crews that dates back nearly three decades ago.

“Bottom line is it has been a mess, and it could have been prevented had Southwest spent the money they needed to to upgrade this system, I don’t know, any time from the 1990s forward,” Ratliff said. “When you understand this thing was created at a time when Southwest is a third of the size they are now so much growth has taken place … I think it’s rather incredible it’s lasted as long as it has.”

Ratliff detailed what conditions are like for crew members at airports across the country.

“It’s so bad right now the crew members can’t even reach flight control, (they) are stranded at airports sleeping in airports, the pilots and flight attendants, which is just, again, it’s insane about how bad all of this has become,” he said.

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On Monday, Southwest Airlines canceled 71% of flights. That added up to about 2,909 cancelations. According to Ratliff, on the same day, American Airlines canceled 12 flights.

Ratliff said blaming the weather on canceled flights is an excuse for a much larger issue related to the software. Winter weather is considered to be an “Act of God,” and thus, wouldn’t necessitate the need for giving travelers impacted vouchers for travel, food, etc.

“This is clearly a Southwest Airlines issue, which means they should be giving hotel vouchers, they should be giving food vouchers, they should be doing things to accommodate people as best they can until the next Southwest Airlines flight can accommodate them.

“But again, you’ve got to push for some of that,” Ratliff said.

What should you do if you’ve been impacted by a Southwest Airlines canceled flight? First, keep your receipts.

“Don’t even bother sending a complaint to Southwest. Send it to the Department of Transportation,” Ratliff added. “The DOT then goes to Southwest on our behalf saying here’s a complaint, please respond within 30 days and copy us in on your response.”

He said the airlines should be on the hook for expenses many families were forced to pay, due to the flight cancelations. Expenses like rental cars, additional airline tickets, and other reimbursements.

“They’ve got to be held accountable,” he said.

Accountability is coming at the federal level. The Department of Transportation is opening an investigation into the matter.

“There will be an investigation, and I’m sorry, it’ll probably be a slap on the wrist. Because Southwest will promise never do it again,” Ratliff added. “It’s the same garbage that we have all the time where the airline industry seems to tell the government what they’re going to do instead of the other way around.”

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Wednesday, CVG had six arrivals and departures canceled. All six flights were Southwest Airlines.

Jordan’s statement said the airline has significantly reduced flying over the past few days to catch up. He admitted, there’s work still to be done.

“Clearly we need to double down on our already existing plans to upgrade systems for the extreme circumstances so we never again face what’s happening right now,” Jordan said.

Ratliff said the focus should now be on Southwest Airlines’ next move.

“Southwest is a great airline, they’ll recover from this, they’ll take a serious financial hit, yes, but passengers will again come back. The problem is, if it’s not fully addressed, we’re going to have this exact same situation moving forward,” Ratliff said. “Unless it gets resolved and passengers are reassured that it has been resolved, then it could affect future reservations. Southwest is aware of that. They’ve got to make it clear now that more and more people recognize that it’s not a weather event, it’s a Southwest event.”

To request a refund from Southwest, click here. The DOT complaint form can be found here.

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