A burst of harsh winter conditions last week caused thousands of Southwest Airlines flight cancellations and escalated into a complete collapse of its flight system. In the days that followed, the carrier’s race to recover was slow and, according to some passengers, largely unsuccessful. But experts say the Southwest mess is actually the culmination of problems that have accumulated over several years.
Since Dec. 22, the beleaguered airline has canceled more than half of its usual flight schedule, and as of Wednesday evening, around 87% of all canceled flights in the United States were from the Southwest alone, according to the company’s trackers. FlightRadar24 and FlightAware industry.
The disastrous situation, which infuriated passengers and caught the eye government regulators, amplified this week as other major airlines recovered from the extreme cold, ice and snow that gripped much of the United States over the holiday weekend.
The company apologized to its passengers and employees for the daily cancellations and cut capacity by about two-thirds on Thursday, according to a CNN review of flight data.
This week’s collapse is not the first time the company has found itself in this predicament. In October 2021, Southwest canceled more than 2,000 flights over a four-day period. While the airline blamed the crisis in part on bad weather in Florida, Southwest has canceled flights for far longer than competitors.
But much of Southwest’s mess may be the result of long-term issues unrelated to the weather.
Chief among them are outdated internal processes and information technology. Southwest’s schedule system hasn’t changed much since the 1990s, according to Captain Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association.
Southwest also acknowledged the company’s outdated infrastructure. “We’ve talked a lot about modernizing the operation and the need to do that,” CEO Bob Jordan told employees in a memo obtained by CNN.
Over the years, the airline’s cancellation rate has increased, tripling from 2013 to September 2022, the most recent data available from the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics, which tracks airline performance, and well before the recent crisis.
The bureau only released data for 2022 through September. To ensure a fair comparison, CNN only analyzed the carrier’s data from January through September of previous years.
Cancellation rates among airlines fluctuate from year to year, depending on weather conditions and other factors, such as Covid-19, which caused major industry-wide disruption during the first months of the pandemic in 2020.
But Southwest has consistently failed to match its competitors when it comes to cancellations, according to bureau data.
In several years over the past decade, the airline has had higher cancellation rates than other major airlines, the data shows.
It’s not just cancellations. Southwest has also seen its on-time performance percentage drop in recent years to the lowest point in a decade. Until September 2022, long before the carrier’s current difficulties, only about 7 out of 10 flights arrived on time.