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

The operational fiasco at Southwest Airlines is a warning to the rest of the economy.

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Release Date
October 13, 2021
What happened at Southwest wasn’t a meltdown, it was a burnout
There’s one operational metric for how out of sorts things were at Southwest Airlines this weekend.

Any Southwest flight number above 8501 is a non-revenue flight with no passengers aboard for repositioning. They run sequentially, and reset each day. Southwest by the end of Sunday had reached WN8538 and WN8534 on Monday, some 72 empty flights, as it sought to re-establish its operation. By Tuesday morning, Southwest’s operation was getting back on its feet with 11 more repositioning flights and its leadership said things should be largely back to normal by Wednesday.

What started last Friday with an ATC staffing issue in Jacksonville, Fla., compounded by bad weather threw a wrench into Southwest Airlines’ network. Over Saturday and Sunday, Southwest had 1,846 cancelled flights impacting nearly 230,000 customers across its network.

While much of the political narrative stoked by social media sought to suggest that there was a workers-led revolt over the U.S. Government’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, much of what transpired looks far more like a perfect storm that has been building for months. It has revealed a sizable fracture in a company that has always been known for its strategic resilience, according to interviews in recent days with nearly a dozen Southwest staff.

Read: Airlines stare down simulator logjam once pilot furloughs hit

Yet, the operational disruption at the largest domestic carrier in the U.S. is a warning for the broader mid-pandemic economy, left fragile by the COVID-19 induced collapse of early 2020 and the whiplash-like rebound of some sectors of the economy. On Monday, the end of a holiday weekend in the United States, the Transportation Security Administration screened 2,083,627 people, 80% of what it did on the same weekday in 2019.

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