It was the end of December when Southwest had its latest and worst in a string of meltdowns that dated back several years. After the dust settled, the airline said it would do a thorough review and have third-party Oliver Wyman put together a report as well. Once the work was done, the airline would report back. That Action Plan has now been put forward.
Southwest has broken down its plan into three different segments: Improve winter operations, Accelerate operational investments, and Enhance cross-Team collaboration. In case you’re wondering, that is not a typo. “Team” is supposed to be capitalized thanks to the goofy lingo that Southwest uses to describe itself.
A broad look at the plan suggests that the airline is in fact doing something to combat the issues it faced in December. Many of the points are things that the airline has been saying since the event happened while there’s at least one point that seems to contradict earlier statements. Overall, I don’t really see anything here that would suggest the Oliver Wyman report gave some sort of extra boost to what the airline already figured out on its own. That’s a good thing in that it means Southwest was apparently able to figure out the problems with its own staff. That’s a bad thing, because it’s just a waste of money.
So, let’s dive into all of these, shall we?
Improve winter operations
- Buy more deicing trucks, pads, and ground equipment
- Add storage capacity for deicing fluid at big airports
- Acquire more engine covers and heaters to protect airplanes and ground equipment in cold weather
- Do a better job of informing pilots how much time they have after deicing before they take off
- Add more employees at airports that might get hit with “extreme cold” which requires giving more frequent breaks
- Do something about how they handle fuel for ground equipment.
- Be better at cleaning the ramp to keep ice and snow away
Some of these, like getting more engine covers, the airline had identified very early on. CEO Bob Jordan gave that example when I spoke to him in January. The airline also knows that deicing was a real pain point. I’m surprised, however, to see that they haven’t decided to go with closed deicing pods for employees to use. That had been discussed before. The open buckets the airline uses provide better visibility but they also allow employees to spend less time doing their jobs before having to go back inside to warm up.
I also don’t quite understand what they’re doing with fuel on that next to last point. Specifically it says, “We are reassessing our fuel management process for ground equipment to more reliably operate during extreme winter conditions.” I don’t know if that means they need to keep fuel warmer somewhere or if they just need to have more fuel available.
Accelerate operational investments
- Finished upgrading software to handle crew reassignments on previous problems, not just current ones
- Add more phone capacity for both reservations and crew scheduling
- Improve the tool notifying crews of reassignments to allow them to electronically acknowledge the change
That first bullet point is what Southwest settled on as a huge constraint from the very beginning. The airline had not properly been able to pre-cancel enough flying, so it did a lot of last minute cancels. By the time the crew scheduling system caught up, those problems were considered in the past so it wouldn’t bother solving them. That made it impossible to fully catch up. But now, Southwest has implemented the new version of the GE Crew Optimization system which allows it to solve past problems which need to be fixed before current problems can be addressed This alone should have a huge impact on recovery.
That last bullet point, however, is a headscratcher. The crews had said they were unable to get on the phone to accept crew reassignments. Bob explained to me in my January post “we have automatic notification in place [but] it takes a contractual change, I believe to require acknolwedgement.”
If asked for clarification on the contractual issue back then and was told “the collective bargaining agreements for Pilots and Flight Attendants contain scheduling rules that, if altered, would require negotiation with those respective unions.”
But this now suggests that there was a technical issue. Does this mean Southwest has gained approval from the unions to accept it electronically? That seems unlikely barring a new contract for the pilots. Or maybe it was always a technical issue, and they didn’t want to say. Either way, something smells fishy here.
Enhance cross-Team collaboration
- Put schedule planning under the same leader in charge of the day-to-day operation
- Create new dashboards to improve visibility into the network
- Improve ability to better alert when problems arise
- Create clearer lines of communication between groups
This feels like a throwaway section. The move to have network/schedule planning under COO Andrew Watterson happened before this mess, and the having Adam Decaire who runs network planning take over the ops center seems to have been in motion before this as well. That’s not suggesting it’s good or bad, but just that it was happening anyway. (I do find it to be an interesting model.)
Improving dashboards and alerts and all that, well, yeah. Good idea. I know that happened early in the post-mortem, but it doesn’t feel like this should be a root problem. If so, then Southwest’s systems are even worse than I thought.
Overall, the action plan seems to have some key points that should make a real difference if things get ugly again next winter. Or summer. But with this kind of stuff, only time will truly tell. If Southwest has another operational failure, well, it’ll be time to go back to the drawing board.