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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.

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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.

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.

While a commercial passenger airline isn’t traditionally thought of as a supply chain, at its heart it is a massive logistics operation designed for moving people from airport to airport. Self-loading cargo, as the industry line goes.

A September 29 letter co-signed by global transportation groups, including the International Air Transport Association, which represents 290 airlines — not including Southwest — warned that “global supply chains are beginning to buckle as two years’ worth of strain on transport workers take their toll.”

Much of what transpired comes down to the mid-pandemic state of the airlines. COVID-19 drove the first significant workforce contraction in Southwest’s history, which has been known for its slow, steady and unyielding growth since its launch in 1971. The carrier ended 2020 with 4,230 fewer employees compared to when it ended 2019, about 7% smaller.

“I wish I could sit here and tell you that we are out of the woods, but I cannot. The environment for our entire industry remains fragile,” said Mike Van de Ven, the company’s president and chief operating officer in an internal message on Sunday.

Looking up at a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-700 on long final approach to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

On Saturday afternoon, just as the operational problems were worsening, the safety committee of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) emailed flight crews: “Make no mistake about it – due to months of staffing issues and inefficient scheduling practices we have been operating at a higher than normal operational risk,” according to the email reviewed by The Air Current. “Every month we hit new records for fatigue pulls, which are now triple the levels of historical norms. Just yesterday, we had 37 fatigue pulls in a single day.”

A fatigue pull is when a pilot says they’re unable to fly because they are too tired to operate a flight. It’s an instant red line for crews. SWAPA said there have been 240 through the month to October 11, compared to 365 in all of September. There were 633 in all of August.

Read: Airlines stare down simulator logjam once pilot furloughs hit

In 2020, 620 Southwest pilots took buyouts, or what the company called voluntary separation packages. While that should have left a sufficient number of pilots able to fly its 2021 schedules, around 25 of Southwest’s roughly 150 simulator instructors accepted buyouts, as well. That’s left many pilots on long-term leave, waiting for a training slot to return to currency. The company is bringing 50 line pilots to fill the gaps, said two familiar with the shift, but that may mean pulling an otherwise available aviator.

The company is in the middle of hiring approximately 5,000 new employees by year end and Van De Ven told employees it is about 50% of the way there. “We simply need more staffing cushion for the unexpected in this environment and we are bringing new people onboard every day.”

CNBC reported over the weekend that crews were having trouble finding hotel accommodations. Another staffer said many pilots were on hold with crew scheduling for multiple hours, waiting for their marching orders. About 100 airplanes and crews were out of position.

Southwest has always held the reputation for industry leading productivity, but over the past year the remaining cadre of Southwest employees at all levels have been in a full sprint with repeated overtime shifts, much of it mandatory. 

There’s a complicated web of work rules and policies that govern Southwest’s expansive workforce, but staff are exhausted, pushed to their limit having been asked for more to keep the country’s largest domestic airline operation running.

“You can bet that when you go to work, your schedule will be changed. More than half the time, you’ll be correct,” said a first officer. “It’ll manifest as shortened overnights due to added-on flights, assignments into days off, and sometimes seven changes to a 3-day trip. It’s hard to get food anyway, but when things are changing rapidly it makes planning moot.”

A Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-700 lands at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in June 2021 in front of Mt. Rainier.

Generally speaking, with open shifts being first offered to volunteers with overtime pay, the company will then start calling staff in reverse order of seniority. Known as junior assigning, staff are contractually obligated to work the shift if they answer the call, causing many to screen their phones.

One gate agent speculated “some might be protesting the vaccination mandate but honestly we’re just burnt-out with all the mandatory assignments so most are avoiding the calls” from scheduling asking them to come in. A veteran flight operations staffer who had been pulled in this weekend for an unexpected shift said it was unlikely the vaccine mandate contributed at all. “But, really, I think we’re just spread too thin. Everyone in the company is tired,” said the staffer.

“I can safely say that until this summer, I could count the number of times we utilized junior assigning over the last decade, on one hand. It has been multiple shifts all summer long,” said the flight operations staffer.

The Air Current heard the same repeatedly across staff in different work groups. From ramp staff to gate agents, dispatchers, pilots and cabin crew.

Related: 737 Max grounding tests Southwest’s relationship with Boeing

That has left Southwest’s network uniquely vulnerable to the type of disruption it witnessed over the weekend. Unlike a traditional hub and spoke model (out and back), even with its mega stations in cities like Dallas, Baltimore, Chicago and Oakland, Southwest flows its Boeing 737s from city, to city, to city, to city across a linear nodal network. On any given day, 40% to 50% of Southwest’s aircraft touch Florida.

“A point-to-point network is awesome when the weather is generally good,” said the veteran flight operations staffer. It’s one of the reasons a single-fleet of 737s works so well for Southwest, “But when we have an outage like that for an extended period of time, the lack of a hub and spoke, out and back, cancellation…is painful to the operation as a whole.”

Southwest Airlines declined to comment on the specific assertions made by its employees in this story.

“It’s been a rough summer, I’m not offering any excuses,” Southwest’s Chief Executive Gary Kelly told CNBC on Tuesday morning. “We definitely have some staffing challenges as well. We were thinly staffed coming into the weekend and that certainly didn’t help things as we were trying to recover.”

Write to Jon Ostrower at jon@theaircurrent.com

Jon Ostrower is Editor-in-chief of The Air Current. Prior to launching TAC in June 2018, Ostrower served as Aviation Editor for CNN Worldwide, guiding the network's global coverage of the business and operations of flying. Ostrower joined CNN in 2016 following four and half years at the Wall Street Journal. Based first in Chicago and then in Washington, D.C. he covered Boeing, aviation safety and the business of global aerospace. Before that, Ostrower was editor of the award-winning FlightBlogger for Flightglobal and Flight International Magazine covering the development of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and other new aircraft programs from 2007 to 2012. Ostrower, a Boston native, graduated from The George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs with a bachelor's degree in Political Communication. He is based in Seattle.

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