Southwest Airlines suffered more than a dozen technology glitches, outages and meltdowns, even before the 2022 holiday season when it canceled 16,700 flights over 10 days.
Time and time again over the last decade, leaders at the Dallas-based carrier apologized to customers and said the company hadn’t lived up to its reputation built over 50 years, according to a Dallas Morning News examination of Southwest Airlines’ operational and technology problems.
What led to the company’s epic December failure will be in the spotlight Thursday when the company’s chief operating officer Andrew Watterson faces questions at a U.S. Senate committee hearing. He’ll testify along with pilots union president Casey Murray, a critic of Southwest’s attention to previous technology problems.
Over the last decade when issues arose, company leaders, including former CEO Gary Kelly and current CEO Bob Jordan, pledged technology upgrades and promised that new, better systems were on the way.
Few are as familiar with those problems as Jordan, who joined Southwest’s fledgling computer programming team in 1988 from Hewlett-Packard and has been closely tied to technology as he climbed the corporate ladder to chief executive in the summer of 2021.
Jordan spent six years heading the company’s technology teams and hired the company’s first chief technology officer in 2008 before leading the physical and digital integration of one of the company’s biggest acquisitions in its history, the $1.4 billion deal to buy AirTran in 2011.
Now, Jordan and Southwest are facing criticism from unions and analysts for skimping on technology investments and ignoring years of warning signs. He’s pushed back against accusations of “antiquated technology” and has shifted blame for December’s debacle during a winter storm that hit key airports in Chicago and Denver.
Prior to taking over as CEO a year ago, Jordan talked about what kind of technology upgrades the company needs as he made “modernizing the operation” a focal point of his first months leading the company. He said then that Southwest is behind in comparison to competitors.
“There are tools that our employees need to manage that complexity and manage their daily lives that I just don’t think they have in every case, because the parts are moving around all the time. So we want to work on modernizing operation,” Jordan said during a Dallas Morning News interview in November 2021.
Asked this week to address the repeated role of technology in previous operational woes, Southwest Airlines said it plans to spend $1.3 billion this year on IT upgrades and “has a long history of innovation and pioneering technology in the airline industry.”
“As one of the first airlines to issue paperless tickets, launch a website, introduce a mobile app and more, we’ve continued to invest in modernizing our operations,” spokeswoman Ashley Bain said. “The recent disruption accelerated plans to enhance our processes, and we are heavily focused on assuring our customers experience Southwest’s 51-year history of safe, reliable and hospitable air travel.”
Here’s what The News found in reviewing Southwest’s operating problems and technology shortcomings:
The company hired Bob Young as its chief technology officer. The job was described at the time by Jordan, then executive vice president of strategy and planning, as a key role for the airline as it prepared to re-launch its Rapid Rewards frequent flyer program, expand its codeshare relationships to international destinations and test onboard wireless Internet.
“With so much work to do and the excitement we all feel about these projects, we are thrilled to have someone with Bob’s energy and background on our team to help carry all of this momentum forward,” Jordan said.
Young left the airline in 2012. His LinkedIn profile said he “conceptualized and implemented an IT strategy focused on customer loyalty and employee usability.” Those efforts added over $100 million in revenue while reducing support costs by more than 15%, Young’s profile said.
He also listed as accomplishments the elimination of many mainframe computers, equipping airport counters with technology to enable a shift to web and mobile reservations, and leading design and delivery of Southwest’s first mobile application for customers.
Young declined an interview and said Jordan did “admirably” in leading the company through the recent crisis.
Southwest launched a February test of wireless Internet on its flights using satellite-to-airplane technology. Other major carriers were testing ground-to-aircraft technology.
Several months later, it added a feature to its phone reservation system that called back customers rather than making them wait on hold. The new technology came amid a decline in customers buying tickets by phone. In 2008, nearly 78% of passenger revenues came through Southwest.com.
Southwest faced a double technology failure on March 1, 2011, when a telecommunications glitch delayed about 300 flights across the country and the launch of a revamped Rapid Rewards frequent flyer program left customers unable to access accounts or make changes.
The telecommunications problems left Southwest gate agents unable to swipe digital boarding passes through readers before passengers got on planes, forcing them to look up reservations manually.
In a blog post apologizing for the Rapid Rewards issues, which were fixed overnight, Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz said the company was in a “slump” and “we haven’t lived up to our standards or expectations for delivering customer service.”
Southwest was already going through one of its biggest technological challenges in 2011 when it bought Orlando-based carrier AirTran and moved Jordan to president of the new division. Computer systems that sold tickets, scheduled airplanes, tracked operations, issued paychecks, bought fuel and made sure maintenance was done all needed to be combined with legacy systems at Southwest and made seamless.
“There’s a lot of technology work, as there always is,” Jordan said. “But we’ve got it very well organized. We’ve got it staffed, and I feel confident about the work. It’s just going to take time.”
Jordan was promoted to chief commercial officer six months later.
The 2011 AirTran purchase came with a new challenge for Southwest, flying internationally to countries such as Mexico and Aruba, something the domestic-focused airline had never done before.
Gary Kelly, CEO at the time, described it as “a really simple problem” but noted that the company had other technology priorities it needed to address, too.
“I think we’ve done all we can,” Kelly said about efforts to get Southwest systems upgraded to handle international flights. “It’ll be phased in over time. You know and we know that we’re transforming ourselves from what we were into what we want to be. It’s just going to take some time and effort.
Even today, Southwest doesn’t have the ability to fly to Canada. Kelly, now the company’s chairman, said the airline needs to upgrade technology to convert to Canadian currencies and make flying to cities such as Toronto, Vancouver and Quebec possible.
In August of that year, Southwest faced another technology issue when its website systems malfunctioned during a fare sale. Customers received duplicated credit and debit card charges for the half-price sale.
In 2015, the airline’s scheduling system drew criticism when the U.S. Department of Transportation fined the company for keeping passengers on airplanes too long after a storm dumped more than 12 inches of snow on Chicago’s Midway Airport in January 2014. The $1.6 million fine was a record at the time.
“In addition to severe weather on January 2, Southwest experienced a malfunctioning of its crew scheduling system and an unexpected shortage of staff, particularly the carrier’s ramp crew,” the DOT said in its order.
The “Meltdown at Midway” has been cited by union leaders ever since as one of Southwest’s earlier technology issues that have become more frequent in the six years since.
Six months later, the company apologized again to customers who became frustrated when a fare sale overwhelmed its website and mobile app and overloaded its call centers. Jordan, then the company’s chief commercial officer, said no specific cause for the computer troubles could be found other than a high volume of visitors to the website.
“The volumes have just overwhelmed our site,” he said in a video message at the time.
A router failure was blamed for an outage that resulted in 2,300 cancellations over four days. Then-CEO Kelly compared the failure to a once-in-a-thousand-year flood and said that even though there was a backup, the unique way the router failed didn’t signal that a backup router was needed, allowing one disruption to metastasize into a crisis.
Southwest said afterward that it was continuing to invest in updating technology infrastructure, which struggled at times to keep pace with the airline’s rapid growth.
“We were at a dead start when I got here in the 1980s,” Kelly said. “There was virtually no technology and then the technology we added in the 1990s was very immature.”'
Later that year, technology was an issue in the company’s negotiations with its flight attendants union. The company negotiated a delay in the talks to give it time to continue updating its crew scheduling technology.
Southwest is still experiencing a nationwide passenger processing system outage. Avoid delays arrive early. pic.twitter.com/OyPX72ecO0— LA Airport PD (@LAAirportPD) October 11, 2015
Audrey Stone, then president of Transport Workers Union Local 556, which represents Southwest flight attendants, said tabling some issues until 2018 would allow Southwest “to make some needed improvements before we can consider large contractual changes that have a huge technology basis.”
After Delta experienced a meltdown that year, Rick Seaney, who created FareCompare.com, a consumer search engine for ticket prices, said: “These airlines [American, United, Delta and Southwest] have long histories: 20 years of cobbled-together systems. It’s difficult to integrate older technology. They have hundreds and hundreds of cobbled-together things that they have to track down to make sure everything is working correctly.”
Embry-Riddle University Aeronautical business professor Bijan Vasigh warned that the problems could have been worse at a busier time of year for traveling.
“Imagine if this event had happened during Thanksgiving or Christmas; this would be catastrophic for the airline,” Vasigh said. “Recapturing those passengers and accommodating them would be a nightmare.”
That year, union leaders called for Kelly and chief operating officer Mike Van de Ven to be replaced following the technology issues. The cancellations cost Southwest $54 million in lost revenue and increased expenses.
Southwest spent upwards of $500 million to upgrade its reservation systems in 2017 to an industry-standard system run by Amadeus.
Van de Ven described Southwest’s tech plight to Bloomberg News: “To be real blunt, up until about 2010, it all worked pretty well. We had a fantastic run in terms of low costs, given the technical infrastructure we had, and we’re at that point that we need to make some investments.”
There were a handful of technical issues with the new reservation systems when it launched in May 2017, including problems selling upgraded boarding to customers at the gate. “These are just a couple of one-off items that we found, that we’ll fix and we’ll get behind us,” Kelly told analysts in July.
In August of that year, a technology issue inconvenienced travelers with frequent flyer status who are usually automatically checked in for flights.
Southwest described the problem as an “ongoing issue” and said its technology team was “working feverishly” to resolve it.
In October, several airlines including Southwest were hampered by a glitch at Southlake-based Sabre that prevented passengers from booking flights through websites and apps.
As airlines tried to recover from the travel downturn of the COVID-19 pandemic, Southwest was among the earliest to struggle due to limited staffing and technology problems.
Southwest experienced technology outages on back-to-back days in June and the carrier canceled more than 960 flights. First, it was the weather system from a third-party vendor that halted take-offs, then a reservation system malfunction forced the cutting of 500 flights.
“Whenever weather and the company’s irregular operations or technology issues occur, flight attendants bear the brunt of the impact,” said TWU Local 556 president Lyn Montgomery, who heads Southwest’s 15,400-member flight attendants union.
Southwest continued to struggle with cancellations through the summer and fall, culminating in a Columbus Day weekend disaster when bad weather and air traffic control issues caused problems in Florida, eventually creating days of higher-than-normal disruptions and more than 2,000 scratched flights. Crew rescheduling systems struggled to keep up with high demand, and it took Southwest several days to get the airline running normally again.
Jordan called the circumstances “unique.”
“You end up with aircraft and crews out of line in places we didn’t expect,” he told The News. “It takes a lot of effort to pull that back together, which is why you saw so many cancels.”
In April, Southwest blamed technology issues when it delayed 38% of its flights and canceled 9% of them in one day. Southwest didn’t say exactly what the technology issues were, but said the problems took place during “pre-dawn maintenance.”
Weeks later, during contract negotiation picketing in Dallas, Southwest Airlines Pilot Association president Casey Murray said Southwest badly needs to update its technology that helps reschedule pilots during disruptions, but it also needs to give pilots more flexibility to pick up extra flying and rearrange trips.
In May, Southwest said it was committing $2 billion to in-flight technology upgrades such as better wireless internet and power outlets on each seat in newer aircraft.
A few months later during picketing in September, union flight attendants held up signs that read: “Another victim of SWA’s outdated technology.” Montgomery said she was worried the carrier was planning too many flights.
Three months later, Southwest Airlines faced the worst operational crisis in its history when its crew scheduling software was unable to keep up with reassignments following storms that swept through the central United States with near-zero-degree temperatures.
“It was a very unique set of events,” Jordan said during the company’s fourth-quarter earnings call on Jan. 26. “It didn’t start as a technology issue and, in my mind, it didn’t end as a technology issue.”