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Years of outdated software, management failures led to Southwest meltdown, staff say

While Winter Storm Elliott made the travel situation worse, Southwest executives have been aware of problems in their system for years, Southwest Airlines Pilots Association Vice President Mike Santoro said Tuesday.

Published: December 27, 2022 1:32pm

Updated: December 27, 2022 11:01pm

Facing many of the same challenges as stranded passengers, Southwest Airlines employees point to years of mistreatment, software system neglect and management failures as causes of the airline's latest travel catastrophe.  

While Winter Storm Elliott made the travel situation worse, Southwest executives have been aware of problems in their system for years, Southwest Airlines Pilots Association Vice President Mike Santoro said Tuesday.

"We have a meltdown like once a year for the past five or six years," he told CNN on Tuesday. Every year, union leadership tells Southwest executives to fix their "vastly outdated" scheduling software, but it is "to no avail," Santoro said.

The flight attendants' union agrees. "Southwest Airlines has failed its employees once again, the result of years of refusal to modernize operations," TWU Local 556 said.

Flight attendants have been on hold with Southwest for up to 17 hours waiting to be released to go home or to find out where their next trip will be, the union said.

"The way Southwest Airlines has treated its flight crews can only be termed 'despicable,'" Southwest flight attendant union president Lyn Montgomery said.

Another union president at the low-cost carrier alleged that the problems began in 2015. 

"Groundworkers are flagrantly mistreated and abused by management," New York-based union president John Samuelsen said in a 2017 letter, The Street reported. "Southwest is writing up nearly three workers per day and firing one worker every other day."

In June, more than 1,000 Southwest pilots picketed outside of Dallas Love Field in Texas for better working conditions after they said they were underpaid and fatigued.

Southwest canceled 63% of its flights on Tuesday, accounting for 85% of all U.S. flight cancelations, according to FlightAware. The airline has already canceled 62% of its flights for Wednesday.

Southwest issued a "State of Operational Emergency" at the Denver airport on Dec. 21, ahead of the winter storm, threatening to terminate employees who did not work mandatory overtime and those who were sick and did not provide in-person doctors' notes, among other things.

The company is unaware of the location of some of its own employees due to software problems, pilot union president Casey Murray said Sunday. 

"We have crews stuck, and scheduling doesn't know where they are," Murray said, The Wall Street Journal reported.

CEO Bob Jordan blamed dated technology for some of the problems. 

"Part of what we're suffering is a lack of tools," Jordan said.

Southwest Airlines had 65,000 employees in September, which is 2,500 more workers than it had in February 2020 before cutbacks from the COVID pandemic, The Dallas Morning News reported. Jordan said earlier this month that the airline planned on hiring 8,000 more employees, including 2,250 pilots, in 2023. 

Southwest went from being "a company that supported its employees to a company supported by its employees," Murray said on a podcast earlier this year.

In addition to a dated computer system, Southwest's schedule of short flights and tight turnarounds are also causing some problems, FlightAware spokesperson Kathleen Bangs told CNN.

The Transportation Department criticized Southwest and vowed a probe into the cancellations.  

"Just the News, No Noise" co-host Amanda Head said she will "never fly Southwest again" after her "nightmare" situation with the airline.

The second leg of her trip from Dallas was canceled and she was forced to rent a car to finish her trip. Four days later and roughly ten hours on hold with Southwest, Head still does not have her luggage.

"I understand that it was the holidays. I understand that Winter Storm Elliott created even more complications, but Southwest completely abandoned their customers," she said.

Head is among the thousands of travelers affected by Southwest's cancellations. 

The airline responded every few minutes to Tweets from disgruntled passengers on Tuesday. 

Southwest said it will fly roughly a third of its schedule over the next few days as the airline attempts to recover. 

"On the other side of this, we'll work to make things right for those we've let down, including our Employees," the company said Tuesday.

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