Friday, December 30, 2022

Southwest fiasco shows how maybe "efficiency" ain't what works best all the time

In what's a typically slow news week that has a lot of travel, the fiasco at Southwest Airlines could not have come at a much worse time. And given that Southwest operates the most flights at Wisconsin's busiest airport, that story has been especially relevant in this state.
The line at the Southwest Airlines check-in counter at Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport was much smaller on Wednesday. But a giant pile of unclaimed bags remained on the carousel waiting to be sent to their final destination or for their owners to pick them up.

The Southwest winter meltdown continues as travelers prep for another busy weekend ahead of the New Year. The airline has added a page to its website offering travelers the ability to check their flight, rebook a flight or get a refund for those trying to use the airline through Monday.

At Mitchell International, another 32 Southwest flights were canceled Wednesday and four were delayed, according to Flight Aware, which tracks flight information in real time.

Numerous reasons have been offered about why this debacle has risen to such a giant scale. The airline points to the winter storm that struck much the country last week, the customers point to the airline for lack of preparation for the storm, and the pilots union points to the inadequate technology the airline uses to track staff.
Part of this mess is also the downside of Southwest's service model that takes it from place-to-place instead of funneling flights toward a handful of hub airports. And that model got complicated when flight schedules and crew locations got scrambled with the brutal cold snap that hit around the time people were traveling for Christmas.
While Southwest does have major connecting airports, much of its schedule involves planes and crews crisscrossing the country -- a network that aviation watchers say is more vulnerable than legacy carriers' hub-and-spoke model that can contain a disruption to particular geographic regions.

When something goes wrong, the Southwest software -- including the crew scheduling system tool -- leaves much of the work of rebuilding that delicate network to be done manually.

"It can't see the best way to fix anything when flights are canceled," said Brian Brown, president of Transport Workers Union Local 550, representing Southwest dispatchers and meteorologists. "It requires a lot more human intervention and human eyesight or brainpower, and can only handle so much."

The result is that airline officials "don't necessarily know where our crews are, where our planes are," Brown said.

Crew schedulers in another department are manually checking which pilots and flight attendants meet strict federal rules on work hours -- rules meant to keep inflight safety professionals from excessive fatigue.
And like a lot of things in the 2020s, when you've run things so tight as to wring the last possible drop of "efficiency" out of it, one little break in the chain causes a lot of things to get messed up.

US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has been out in public trying to remind screwed-over passengers that they already have the right to reimbursement when an airline can't follow through on the flight they promised them.

That's nice, but that won't stop these sort of messes from happening, and American travelers having to deal with the stresses and extra costs (in both time and money). Which means we need a base level of technology required of all airlines to improve logistics and tracking of the level of staff that is required for a flight to take place.

And if a company hasn't made that investment, then they should be required to make that investment at their own expense (because why should responsible companies be penalized for having already done the right thing?).

There also needs to be more cushion built into the air travel system to avoid the chances of this type of meltdown when weather or some other outside disruption happens, and that needs to be especially true in high-travel weeks like Christmas/New Year's. I think this tweet sums up the point quite well.

If that requires federal subsidies to pay extra funds to airlines staff in those high-travel weeks, to try to discourage sick-outs or large numbers of people taking off for vacation, I'd say do it. And if that means fewer flights and (gasp!) higher fares, then that's how it goes. I'd much rather have a 95% rate of on-time, uncanceled flights than 75% of a higher number of flights.

And I have a very selfish reason for seeing Southwest get back on track in the next 2 weeks.

That's a freebie flight based on points, so booking the backup flight and canceling SW today doesn't make a lot of sense. Just gotta cross the fingers and hope it works out, which really isn't a way for a country to have a transportation system...and an economy that has a significant part of it be reliant on people getting to places on-time.

1 comment:

  1. That is the problem of current, too much efficiency and not enough redundancy. This isn't being done for any other reason than to suck as much value from the system. One would wonder after the issues of 2020 and the pandemic, will business start to reconsider, adding in redundancy and inefficiency to deal with the irate customers. Or is it not necessary as they are in a monopolistic position and know whatever hit they take will not be long term? I am sure some smaller to medium business are, but are the larger ones.