Why Did Southwest Cancel Flights? What Unforeseen Circumstances Led to it?

Southwest has faced challenges with its computer systems in the past, including a major disruption that affected the entire nation during the holiday season in December 2022. The U.S. Department of Transportation has announced plans to investigate the computer issues at Southwest Airlines. So why did Southwest cancel flights? Let’s find out!

Why Did Southwest Cancel Flights?

The reason behind the high number of flight cancellations at Southwest Airlines, which can reach up to 70% in a single day, is not primarily due to weather conditions, as you might expect.

According to Capt. Tom Nekoeui, the second vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), the union representing the airline’s pilots, the root cause lies in the lack of infrastructure that has persisted for many years.

Nekoeui explains that the cancellations are related to a model known as the “point-to-point” system, which Southwest Airlines follows when designing its routes.

He elaborates, “What sets Southwest apart is that since the beginning, our flights have been designed to go from Austin to San Antonio to Dallas, or from Denver to Colorado Springs to Albuquerque. This point-to-point system is something that the larger airlines don’t typically employ.”

What’s the ‘Hub-and-Spoke’ Model?

When Capt. Tom Nekoeui mentions “legacies,” he is referring to well-established airlines like American, United, and Delta. These airlines operate using a different model called the “hub-and-spoke” system. Unlike the point-to-point model, the hub-and-spoke model involves flights originating and returning to specific hub cities.

Nekoeui explains, “They have hubs in cities like Chicago, Atlanta, and Denver. Flights operate from these hubs to various destinations. They have a mainline fleet or an express fleet that connects the hub to different cities.”

In contrast, Southwest Airlines might fly directly from Seattle to Chicago and then to Miami, while an airline using the hub-and-spoke model would fly from Los Angeles to Chicago and then back to Los Angeles. Another aircraft would then handle the Chicago to Miami flight.

This approach ensures that if a winter storm hits Seattle with heavy snow, flights departing from Seattle would be affected, but flights departing from Chicago would likely remain unaffected. Essentially, it prevents a weather-related disruption in one region from causing widespread chaos across the entire network.

What Else is Causing the Backlog?

The Southwest pilot’s union points to software as another reason why the airline is facing challenges in rebooking passengers. According to Nekoeui, there is a lack of knowledge about the pilots’ whereabouts within the company.

He explains, “The company doesn’t know where the pilots are. They don’t have that information.” Unlike other airlines that rely on algorithms to identify when a pilot may not be able to make a flight, Southwest’s system is more reliant on manual processes and human intervention, as stated by SWAPA.

For example, if a pilot misses a flight in Austin and is en route to Dallas for the next flight, a person needs to manually update the information. Updating staffing lists manually can work when dealing with one or two flight cancellations, but when faced with 2,500 cancellations, it becomes challenging.

Final Thoughts

According to Nekoeui, other airlines have more automated methods for updating staffing information. “The software systems they use involve algorithms, but we haven’t adopted such practices,” he explains. “We can see the consequences now with the increasing number and duration of our meltdowns.”