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Customers, Not Regulators, Should Hold Southwest Accountable

(Reprinted with permission from the Competitive Enterprise Institute blog.)

Southwest Airlines’ scheduling meltdown over the holiday weekend has prompted Capitol Hill lawmakers to propose hearings and federal regulators like Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to promise a federal investigation.

None of this is necessary. Southwest’s own customers will hold the company to account for its blunders. Many were left stranded at the height of the holiday season and they’ll likely remember that the next time they fly. Yes, Southwest might cheaper, but, as the saying goes, you get what you pay for.

There’s little reason to suspect that any investigation will turn up anything that isn’t already public knowledge. The two main unions for Southwest Airlines both point to the company’s use of outdated computer technology as the main cause for its scheduling meltdown over the holiday weekend. Independent reporting corroborates that this was the likely reason.

“The holiday meltdown has been blamed on weather that had been forecast five days prior, but this problem began many years ago when the complexity of our [computer] network outgrew its ability to withstand meteorological and technological disruptions,” said the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association. It called for new crew scheduling software and other communications tools.

Lyn Montgomery, president of Transport Workers Union Local 556, which represents Southwest’s flight attendants, said the meltdown was the “operational failure of all failures” and caused by management’s  “decision to continue to expand and grow without the technology needed to handle it.”

In short, Southwest’s own employees say the airline badly needs to overhaul its computer network. Notably, neither union highlighted any other issue. If there had been some other action by management that caused its planes and crews alike to be unnecessarily grounded, the unions wouldn’t have been shy in pointing it out.

Ironically, federal investigations and congressional hearings would be a distraction for Southwest from getting on with that overhaul. Let the company get on with the business of fixing its own mess.

Sean Higgins is a research fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute specializing in labor and employment issues.

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1 comment

  • From decades in the airline business I can tell you that executives have been running their carriers with post-it notes and strung-together soup cans, as far back as I can remember…1973.

    That Southwest allowed this to happen is remarkable. They, at least, weren’t on the brink of bankruptcy. It must have been nice making money when no one else was. How unfortunate they didn’t invest some of it in tech upgrades.

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