A logjam of Southwest 737s on December 27, 2022 at Santa Barbara Municipal Airport. On a typical day, there are six Southwest arrivals and 6 departures at Santa Barbara, and rarely more than one of the airline's 737 at the airport at the same time.
Southwest is attempting to appease holiday travelers who were stranded in the airline’s latest fiasco with frequent flier miles and a mediocre, excuse-laden apology — but its pilots’ union (Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, SWAPA) is having none of it. They’ve called leadership out — referring to executive management as a cult in a letter that lists the ways their failures have led to the brand’s persistent problems. Instead of investing in much-needed technological upgrades and staffing, the letter accuses the airline of “maximizing shareholder return” at their expense. Like all corporate entities, Southwest has a duty to its employees and customers first. The airline’s massive disruptions will likely continue until it recognizes the need for corporate responsibility and purpose beyond enriching shareholders and stock buybacks.
Extreme winter weather caused a wave of cancellations across airlines this holiday season — although none weathered it quite as badly as Southwest. Over 15,000 flights were scratched by the transportation giant from December 22nd through the 30th. But it wasn’t just the ice and snow that did them in. As NPR and other news outlets reported, the raging “tripledemic” had many workers out sick — then to top it off Southwest’s ancient staff scheduling software just couldn’t handle the crisis.
What’s worse, though, is that none of this is a surprise to anyone at the airline. Union pilots have been begging leadership to upgrade their technology for years. “I fear that we are one thunderstorm, one ATC event, one router brownout from a complete meltdown. Whether that’s Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or New Year, that’s the precarious situation we are in,” Casey Murray, SWAPA President, is quoted as saying in November, not long before the meltdown.
In fact, this isn’t Southwest’s first self-inflicted disaster. An issue with air traffic control in Jacksonville was felt around the country in October 2021 when the incident had 29 percent of the airline’s flights canceled or temporarily grounded in cities nationwide. Additionally, 2,300 flights were canceled in July 2016 when the airline’s routers went out and issues in 2014 caused 130 flights to be canceled out of Chicago during the month of January. “Systemwide meltdowns at Southwest Airlines have been increasing in frequency and magnitude over the past 15 years,” according to the letter — which was signed by SWAPA’s 2nd Vice President Captain Tom Nekouei.
Nekouei’s main point throughout the letter is that a cultural shift happened at Southwest when Garry Kelly assumed the top position, noting that during that time the company rewarded shareholders with roughly $12 billion and Kelly’s compensation package went up 700 percent. Although he is no longer CEO, Nekouei asserts that Kelly’s influence still dominates the airline’s corporate culture.
Of the lack of investment in technological upgrades needed to keep flights running, Nekouei wrote: “Share buybacks that were once illegal, that provide no benefit for the Company itself while artificially inflating share prices (thus inflating stock-based executive compensation) and sent the clear message that the Company has excess cash on hand but that the CEO thinks there is no better place for investment of capital within his Company.”
Nekouei further noted that while nothing tangible has been done to fix the structural and technological problems, “we continue to receive saccharine corporate-communications- department-written and legal-counsel reviewed ‘we’re sorry’ and ‘I love you’ meaningless and generic messages from SWA corporate executives.” And, while these apologies ring hollow right along with the measly 25,000 frequent flier points Southwest has offered those travelers who were caught in the worst of the mess, Nekouei offered a solution — a return to the values and purpose the airline was founded on:
“You put your employees first. If you truly treat your employees that way, they will treat your customers well, your customers will come back, and that’s what makes your shareholders happy. So there’s no constituency at war with any other constituency. Ultimately, it’s shareholder value that you’re producing.” — Herb Kelleher
Image credit: Glenn Beltz
Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.