It's being dubbed the Southwest Airlines 2022 Holiday Meltdown, and it's on track to be the worst travel debacle in that industry's history. The fallout promises to be astronomical, costing the company hundreds of millions of dollars and its reputation — now being known as the airline that left millions of chairs sitting empty at the holiday table.  

“I am sure this is a new record,” said aviation expert, Michael Boyd.

With the addition of an extra 5,000 Southwest flights canceled over Wednesday and Thursday this week, the total number of scrapped flights from the nine-day debacle is expected to hit more than 20,000.

Aside from 9-11, when the entire country’s air fleet was grounded due to a national emergency, and apart from the slow-motion devastation brought by the coronavirus pandemic, the Southwest meltdown could be known as the king of airline failures.

“The pandemic caused thousands of cancellations, but that was the result of a global event. This is just one airline and the problems were started by a major weather event,” said Boyd.

Though the numbers have yet to be crunched, the monetary hit to Southwest will be at least $300 million to $400 million, according to Southwest Airline Capt. Tom Nekouei, Second Vice President of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association.

“I hate to say it, but this is an ‘I told you so moment,' ” he said. Nekouei is based out of Lonetree, Colo.

The Wednesday before Christmas, Nekouei's was one of the first planes to land at Denver International Airport just as the deep freeze was setting in.

“There was wind shear and the temperature dropped 30 degrees in 30 minutes,” said Nekouei. Airline employees were bracing for a storm it knew was coming but no amount of preparation could make up for outdated scheduling technology which requires crews to call in for reassignments instead of using automation.

Thousands of passengers needed rebooking, pronto, and hundreds of Southwest pilots and flight attendants were calling the same number at the same time for reassignments.

As cancellations started piling up, pilots and flight attendants were on hold for hours with no direction. They sat in crew lobbies, in hotels and on the back ends of planes waiting for direction which never came. 

To confirm that the never-ending phone calls really happened, Nekouei sent the Denver Gazette several screen shots taken from crew phones starting on Dec. 21 up until the present as pilots and flight attendants waited for hours on hold for their own airline to pick-up.

The hold times last anywhere from an hour and a half to seven hours and 42 minutes. 

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Hold times varied to reach Southwest, in terms of hours, even for employees. These calls count as on-duty hours, which add to employee quotas for the month.

To compound the situation, these hours were considered on-duty time. That means that crews were on the clock as they waited to be told what to do. This ate up the strict allotted total of flight hours intended to keep crews fresh each month.

Because some crew members sat on hold waiting for an assignment that may have never come, some of them may have already used up their hours for the month meaning they won’t be eligible to work until Jan. 1.

"It just gets worse and worse," said Nekouei. 

A month ago, Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan admitted that the company needed to update its old system, saying it was “behind” and that “we’ve outrun our tools," but that type of upgrade is expensive and it never happened. 

The flight crew situation was not the only one which had problems. A “State of Operational Emergency" memo sent at 1:45 p.m. to Denver-based ramp workers Dec. 21 revealed that Southwest was experiencing an “unusually high number” of employees who were calling in sick and taking personal days. The directive told employees “alleging illness,” that they would need a doctor’s note to get the time off.

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State of Operational Emergency memo sent Dec. 21 roughly two hours before the frigid cold hit Colorado tells Denver Southwest ramp workers that the high number of sick days must be accompanied by a doctor’s note. It said that any personal days during the storm would be rejected.

In a statement, Randy Barnes, president of TWU Local 555, which represents Southwest’s baggage handler and other ground workers, said people need more support.

“When you’re dealing with sub-zero temperatures, driving winds and ice storms you can’t expect to schedule planes as if every day is a sunny day with moderate temperatures and a gentle breeze,” Barnes said. “Many of our people have been forced to work 16 or 18 hour days during this holiday season. Our members work hard, they’re dedicated to their jobs, but many are getting sick, and some have experienced frostbite over the past week.”

Jordan, who called getting back on track “a giant puzzle” has apologized to customers, some of whom are still waiting to get home, many of them without their luggage.

“Our plan for the next few days is to fly a reduced schedule and reposition our people and planes,” Mr. Jordan said. “We’re making headway, and we’re optimistic to be back on track before next week.”

To right the wrongs, Nekouei said management needs to be held accountable and Southwest must invest in its infrastructure and crew scheduling software immediately.

"This was the first real post-pandemic holiday. We stranded people during this sacred time when grandmas and grandpas couldn't see their kids," he said. "We are concerned that customers won't come back." 

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