As we approached 6pm, I looked out the window near gate A1 and saw a large Boeing 737. Bam. We have a plane. But then the gate agent made an announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re just waiting for the pilot.” We don’t have a pilot. Less than two minutes later, the same agent says the flight has now been cancelled. My second flight canceled in two days. Hundreds of angry passengers join already exhausted gate agents, who now find themselves on the tear of Southwest passengers hurling insults.
During my first six or so years as a Washington Post writer, I covered the airline industry and wrote a business travel column called “Business Class. For 15 years before that, I covered the airline industry for other publications, including USA Today magazine and Business Week.
I have covered massive layoffs, layoffs and mergers within the airline industry going back to TWA and US Air and US Airways. I’ve written about the nation’s unprecedented shutdown of airlines and the fallout from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. I’ve chronicled winter storms, hurricanes, and other weather disasters that crippled airlines and their operations.
But I’ve never seen anything like what I saw over Christmas weekend.
Southwest canceled thousands of flights this week, accounting for more than 90 percent of all US airline cancellations. The cancellations lasted more than a week.
Southwest announced, via a widely distributed press release Thursday, that it plans to return to “normal operations” on Friday and expects “minimal disruption.”
The airline blamed its operational problems on a severe winter storm that hit its operations. But other major airlines, larger and smaller than Southwest, were able to operate most of their flights through the storm. It seems the Southwest’s problems were more than just the weather. The Post obtained a Dec. 21 internal memo about the airline’s Denver operations — among its largest in the country — that saw an “extremely high number of absences” among ramp workers who used sick or personal days. In three of the four points in the memo, the airline threatened “termination” for those employees who “feigned” illness and could not provide a doctor’s note, tried to use a personal day or refused to work mandatory overtime.
A day later, Southwest sent a similar memo to its agents at BWI, also obtained by The Post.
“These memos show that Southwest was dealing with unprecedented moral issues days before the storm hit,” said senior airline analyst Joe Brancatelli.
With its low, no-holds-barred fares and cheerful, animated employees, Southwest for much of the late 1990s and early to mid-2000s was more than the go-to carrier for value-conscious customers. the price; it became a model for many retailers, hotels and other companies competing for loyal customers and dedicated employees. But veteran airline industry consultant Darryl Jenkins noted that as the airline expanded over the past few years, it did so at the cost of updating technology and maintaining employee relations.
“They grew and became a big boy airline. “They were so focused on profits that they failed to modernize,” Jenkins said. “Of all the sad things I’ve seen in the airline industry in 40 years, this tops the list.”
Brancatelli said the airline has been operating with system-wide technology that hasn’t been upgraded since the 1990s. “They haven’t updated their customer service, phone system and crew scheduling systems in decades. And he finally caught them,” he said.
Calls and emails to Southwest were not returned.
Ed Stewart, who was Southwest’s chief spokesman for 15 years until his retirement in 2006 and now runs an airline consulting company, still prides himself on the airline’s employee culture and monthly employee performance bonuses and being the only carrier to never have a layoff. But he said it could be weeks before Southwest executives figure out what went so wrong last week.
“It was definitely more than just the weather. But they need more time to find out what happened,” he said.
After spending Christmas with family in Pittsburgh, I had to return to Washington to attend a friend’s funeral on Wednesday. After my first flight was canceled on Christmas Eve, Southwest airport agents encouraged the long line of displaced travelers to go to its website to rebook. But that didn’t work because all the flights were marked “unavailable”. When we called the toll free number, we got busy signals. When I got through, I was on hold for five hours before giving up.
Before sunrise on Monday, I was dropped off at Pittsburgh International and greeted by a sea of bodies sprawled across chairs, on their suitcases, and across the tile floors. For many of these travelers, I later found out, it was the first Christmas they had spent with family in three years because of the pandemic.
Unlike some other major airlines, Southwest does not have an agreement to fly their displaced passengers on other airlines, so travelers must purchase tickets themselves.
When the flight was cancelled, I looked at other airlines like American. But they wanted $1,300 to $1,500 for a one-way flight. Then I considered an old trick I learned as an airline writer called hidden city flights. This is when you book a one-way flight to a destination that connects to the city you want to fly to. For example, I found a Delta Air Lines flight to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport connecting to Washington’s Reagan National Airport. Because I didn’t check bags (I never check bags on vacation), I could have caught that flight to JFK and just exited the airport in Washington instead of connecting to JFK.
That $350 was a bit expensive, and frankly, I was tired of airlines and airports. So, I decided to rent a car and drive the nearly four hour drive. I thought it was simple enough, after I booked and received a confirmation number from Enterprise in Pittsburgh. But the next morning, I got a call from the manager to tell me that none of the rental companies had cars, despite what the websites said and the confirmation number I had printed. My cousins and I were using our cell phones trying to find me an apartment to rent in Pittsburgh. A worker said I might have to tip an agent $150 to get a car. Sigh.
I am very grateful to Saira Evans, manager at Hertz in Monroeville, Pa., who found a car for me, no tip required, and called me. I joined thousands of stranded passengers in the Southwest navigating icy and muddy roads.
I no longer cover the airline industry. For the past 16 years or so, I’ve covered murders, assaults, robberies and other violent crimes as a crime and court reporter in Washington. Readers have often asked me if I missed covering the airlines. My answer remains the same: I appreciate the coverage of crime, which for the most part results in people taking responsibility for their actions.
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