As 6pm approached, I looked out the window near Gate A1 and saw a large Boeing 737. I have an airplane. But then the gate attendant announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are waiting for the pilot.” No pilot. Less than two minutes later, the same agent says the flight has been cancelled. His second flight cancellation in two days. Hundreds of angry passengers converge on an already exhausted gate agent.
During my first six years or so as a writer for The Washington Post, I covered the aviation industry and wrote a travel column called “Business Class.”” For the previous 15 years, I covered the aviation industry in other publications such as USA Today and Business Week magazine.
I’ve covered major layoffs, downsizing and mergers in the airline industry all the way back to TWA, US Air and US Airways. I have written about the unprecedented grounding of domestic airlines and the fallout as a result of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. I have documented winter storms, hurricanes, and other weather disasters that have damaged airlines and their operations.
But I’ve never seen anything like what I saw on Christmas weekend.
Southwest Airlines canceled thousands of flights this week. This accounts for over 90% of all canceled US airline flights. The cancellation lasted over a week.
Southwest announced via a widely-distributed press release on Thursday that it plans to return to “normal operations” on Friday and expects “minimal disruption.”
The airlines blamed the severe winter storms that hit their operations for operational problems. I was able to operate most of the flights. Weather isn’t the only problem in the Southwest, it seems. The Post obtained his Dec. 21 internal memo regarding the airline’s Denver operations. It is one of the largest operations in the country, and has seen “abnormally high absenteeism” among Lamp employees taking sick leave or personal leave. In three of the memo’s four bullet points, the airline “claimed” illness, failed to provide a doctor’s note, attempted to use personal days, or refused forced overtime. He threatened to “fire” his employees.
A day later, Southwest sent a similar memo to BWI agents, which was also obtained by The Post.
“These memos show Southwest Airlines was dealing with unprecedented morale issues just days before the storm hit,” said longtime aviation analyst Joe Brancatelli. .
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Southwest Airlines was more than the go-to company for price-sensitive customers, with cheap, unlimited fares and a cheerful, energetic workforce. It has become a model for many retailers, hotels, and other businesses that compete for loyal customers and dedicated employees. But Darryl Jenkins, a longtime aviation industry consultant, noted that as airlines have expanded in recent years, they have come at the expense of updating technology and maintaining employee relationships.
“They got big and they became a ‘big guy’ airline. They became profit-oriented and failed to modernize,” says Jenkins. “Of all the sad events I’ve seen in aviation in the last 40 years, this one is at the top of the list.”
Brancatelli said the airline operates with system-wide technology that hasn’t been upgraded since the 1990s. “They haven’t updated their customer service, phone system, or crew scheduling system in decades, and we’ve finally caught up with them,” he said.
Calls and emails to Southwest were not returned.
Ed Stewart, who was the principal spokesperson for Southwest Airlines for 15 years until his retirement in 2006 and now runs an aviation consulting firm, believes the airline’s employee culture and employees’ monthly performance bonuses are now in place. But we are proud and proud to be the only airline that has never laid off. But it could take weeks for Southwest management to figure out what went wrong in the past week, he said.
“It was definitely more than just the weather. But we need more time to find out what happened,” he said.
After spending Christmas with my family in Pittsburgh, I had to return to Washington to attend a friend’s funeral on Wednesday. After my first flight was canceled on Christmas night, an agent at the Southwest airport encouraged the long line of refugees to visit their website and rebook. But it didn’t work as all the flights were marked as ‘unavailable’. There was a busy signal when I called the toll free number. When I managed to get over it, I waited five hours before giving up.
Before sunrise on Monday, I was dropped off at Pittsburgh International Airport and greeted by a sea of chairs, suitcases and people lying on the tile floor. I later found out that it was my first Christmas in three years.
Unlike some other major airlines, Southwest Airlines does not agree to fly evacuated passengers on other airlines, so travelers must purchase their own tickets.
When my flight was cancelled, I looked at other airlines, such as American Airlines. But for a one-way flight he needed between $1,300 and $1,500. Then I thought about an old trick I learned as an aviation writer called Hidden City Flight. This is when you book a one-way flight to a connecting destination in the city you actually want to fly to. For example, Reagan of Washington found a Delta Air Lines flight to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport that connects to the National Airport. Since I didn’t check my bags (which I don’t do when I’m on vacation), I was able to take a flight to JFK and exit the airport in Washington instead of connecting to JFK.
That $350 is a bit high and honestly I was sick of airlines and airports. So I decided to rent a car and drive for about 4 hours. I booked through Enterprise in Pittsburgh and got a confirmation number so I thought it would be easy. However, the next morning, the manager called me to say that none of the car rental companies had the car, even though I had printed out what the website said and the confirmation number. My cousin and I were on our cell phones looking for rentals in Pittsburgh. One employee said he might have to tip the agent $150 to get the car. Ha.
I am very grateful to Saira Evans, manager of Hertz in Monroeville, Pennsylvania.
I no longer cover the aviation industry. For the past 16 years or so, I have been a crime and court reporter in Washington, writing about murders, assaults, robberies, and other violent crimes. You will be asked. my reaction is the same. Thank you for reporting crime. Most of the time people end up taking responsibility for their actions.