As we were approaching 6pm, I looked out my window near gate A1 and saw a large Boeing 737. boom. We have a plane. But then the gate announces: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are waiting for the pilot.” We don’t have a pilot. Less than two minutes later, the same agent said the flight was now cancelled. My second flight cancellation in two days. Hundreds of angry passengers gathered in front of already exhausted gate staff who now found themselves in the sight of tearful, expletive-swearing Southwest Airlines passengers.
During my first six years or so as a Washington Post contributor, I covered the airline industry and wrote a business travel column called “Business Class.”“ In the 15 years before that, I covered the aviation industry for other publications, including USA Today and BusinessWeek magazine.
I’ve covered mass layoffs, layoffs, and mergers in the airline industry going back to TWA, American Airlines, and American Airlines. I’ve written about the unprecedented grounding of American Airlines and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. I documented winter storms, hurricanes, and other weather disasters that crippled airlines and their operations.
But I’ve never seen anything quite like a Christmas weekend.
Southwest Airlines canceled thousands of flights this week, accounting for more than 90% of all U.S. airline cancellations. The cancellation lasted more than a week.
Southwest Airlines announced Thursday in a widely distributed press release that it plans to resume “normal operations” on Friday and expects “minimal disruption.”
The airline blamed its operational problems on a winter storm that battered its operations. But other major airlines, both larger and larger than Southwest, were able to operate most of their flights through the storm. Southwest’s problems appear to be more than just the weather. Post gets Dec. A 21.21 internal memo about the airline’s Denver operations — one of its largest operations in the country — saw “unusually high rates of absenteeism” among disaster employees who were sick or on furlough. In three of the memo’s four bullet points, the airline threatened to “fire” employees who “claimed” to be sick but couldn’t provide a doctor’s note, tried to use a private day or refused to work overtime.
A day later, Southwest Airlines sent a similar memo to its agent at BMI, which was also obtained by The Post.
“These memos show that Southwest was dealing with unprecedented morale issues in the days leading up to the event,” said Joe Brancatelli, a longtime airline analyst.
With its low, unlimited fares and cheerful, active employees, Southwest Airlines was more than just the company of choice for price-conscious customers throughout much of the late 1990s and early-to-mid 2000s; it became the airline of choice for many retailers. , hotels and other companies vying for a model of loyal customers and engaged employees. But Darryl Jenkins, a longtime aviation industry consultant, noted that as airlines have expanded in recent years, it has come at the expense of updating technology and maintaining employee relations.
“They grew and became a ‘big boy’ airline. They became so focused on revenue, they failed to modernize,” Jenkins said. “Of all the tragic things I’ve seen in the airline industry in 40 years, this one tops the list.”
The airline has been using system-wide technology that hasn’t been upgraded since the 1990s, Brancatelli said. “They haven’t updated their customer service, phone system and crew scheduling system in decades. It’s finally catching up to them,” he said.
Calls and emails to Southwest went unanswered.
Ed Stewart, who was Southwest’s key spokesman for 15 years before retiring in 2006 and now runs an airline consultancy, still brags about the airline’s employee culture and monthly performance bonuses, And it is the only airline that has never laid off staff. But he said it could take weeks for Southwest executives to figure out what went wrong in the past week.
“It’s definitely not just the weather. But they need more time to find out what happened,” he said.
After spending Christmas with my family in Pittsburgh, I needed to get back to DC for a friend’s funeral on Wednesday. After my first flight was canceled on Christmas Eve, staff at Southwest Airport encouraged displaced travelers in long lines to go to its website to rebook. But it didn’t work because all flights were marked as “not available”. When we make a free call, we get a busy signal. When I managed to get through, I waited five hours before giving up.
I got off the bus at Pittsburgh International Airport before sunrise on Monday, and was greeted by a crowd of people sprawled out on chairs, suitcases and tiled floors. I later found out that for many of these travelers, this was their first Christmas with their families in three years because of the pandemic.
Unlike several other major airlines, Southwest has no agreements with other airlines to allow displaced passengers to fly on other airlines, so passengers must purchase their own tickets.
When the flight was cancelled, I looked at other airlines such as American Airlines. But they want $1,300 to $1,500 for a one-way flight. Then I thought about an old trick I learned as an airline writer called hide city flights. This is when you book a one-way flight to a destination that stops in the city you actually want to fly to. For example, I found out that Delta Air Lines’ flight to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport connects to Washington’s Reagan National Airport. Since I didn’t have checked luggage (never do during vacations), I could have caught my flight to JFK and left DC directly instead of catching a connecting flight to JFK.
$350 is a bit steep and I’m honestly sick of airlines and airports. So, I chose to rent a car and drive for nearly four hours. I figured it was simple because I made a reservation and got a confirmation number from Enterprise in Pittsburgh. But the next morning the manager called me and told me that none of the rental companies had cars, despite what the website said and I had printed the confirmation number. My cousins and I are using our phones to try and find me a rental in Pittsburgh. A worker said I might need to tip the agent $150 to get the car. sigh.
I am very grateful to Saira Evans, manager of the Hertz Hotel in Monroeville, PA, who helped me find a car, no tip, and called me. I joined thousands of displaced Southwest passengers navigating icy and muddy roads.
I no longer cover the airline industry. For the past 16 years or so, I’ve been writing about murders, assaults, robberies, and other violent crimes as a crime and courts reporter in Washington. Readers often ask me if I miss airline coverage. My answer remains the same: I appreciate reporting on crime, which largely leads to people being held accountable for their actions.