Southwest Airlines and the anatomy of an IT meltdown

A data-driven look inside the largest operational meltdown in U.S. aviation history.

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Release Date
January 11, 2023
Southwest Airlines and the anatomy of an IT meltdown
Three weeks after the worst operational meltdown in U.S. airline history, the broad strokes of Southwest Airlines’ epic failure are widely known. Disruptions caused by a fierce winter storm overwhelmed Southwest’s outdated crew scheduling software, forcing a complete reset of its operations that stranded tens of thousands of customers over the holidays. The airline estimates that the fiasco will cost it around $825 million, including about $425 million in lost revenue.

Although the meltdown was Southwest’s worst, it wasn’t its first. In October 2021, the airline faced another major issue with its crew scheduling system when air traffic control interruptions from storms in Florida sent waves of chaos across its nodal network at a time when it was facing an acute shortage of available crews. The carrier was actively exploring options for upgrading its software throughout 2022, but moved too slowly to prevent an exacerbated repeat of that operational collapse.

Related: What happened at Southwest wasn’t a meltdown, it was a burnout

“We have been long aware of the limitations of our current tools and have plans to invest in improvements in a phased approach. I am committed to addressing needed automation that can handle Crew reassignments quickly and efficiently,” wrote Southwest’s vice president of Crew Scheduling Brendan Conlon in an internal message to employees on December 27 in the middle of the meltdown.

Even as Southwest digs into a wide-reaching internal assessment of what went wrong, a preliminary report from the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) sheds new light on some of the causes and chaotic manifestations of the crisis that afflicted the carrier, its employees and customers during one of the busiest travel weeks of the year. In this hybrid feature that threads together both The Air Current reporting and TAC Analysis, we explore the challenges faced by Southwest in the closing days of 2022, and how they compare to other airline IT meltdowns in the recent, and not-so-recent, past.

The Southwest meltdown highlights broader risks and vulnerabilities in the IT systems that power air transport — which was starkly illustrated yet again on Wednesday, when the Federal Aviation Administration issued a nationwide ground stop after its system that distributes Notice to Air Missions (NOTAMS) went down the previous evening.

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