At least your bags fly for free?
We’re not sure what the comeback story will be for Southwest airlines, but we do know that this could have been prevented, and with advancements in resource management automation and autonomous process monitoring, it’s less expensive to achieve when compared to a large-scale ERP implementation.
Let’s first break down what went wrong.
Déjà vu. In 2021, Southwest canceled over 2,000 flights over four days, costing them $75 million. This should have been the wake up call, but it wasn’t. Leadership either wasn’t aware of the severity of future impacts, or were too focused on the bottom line. Either way, they blew past the break-fix moment at light speed.
Weather happens. No airline could have stood up to the record low temperatures that the Denver airport saw just before Christmas.
Tough for ramp agents. What began as a weather disruption soon ballooned into a resource management crisis. Southwest operates a point-to-point system (versus a hub-and-spoke model), where one plane’s arrival determines the next flight out. When the storm hit Denver, ramp agents had a tough time working in the -24 degree temperatures (with claims of some succumbing to frost bite). A surge of people called in sick.
Management’s response. A memo was sent out declaring an operational emergency. It said that anyone calling in sick would need a note from their doctor or they’d be terminated. It also stated that overtime would be mandated in response to the shortage of staff.
A walkout? Rumors spread that at least one hundred ramp agents quit in response to the memo. Southwest has since denied them.
No planes. The shortage of ramp workers meant that they could not get aircraft to their gates on time. When that happens in a point-to-point system, cancellations start to pile up.
The snowball effect. Rolling cancellations in Denver ended up shutting down Southwest in Dallas, St. Louis, Nashville, and Chicago Midway.
Draconian social media policies. Southwest (either on purpose or indirectly) suppressed employee feedback with policies like the one stating that, when an employee is caught making a derogatory comment about the airline, they are terminated or threatened with termination, burying a lot of the problems and signals that might have otherwise been uncovered.
Tech automation should have saved the day. Skysolver, a staffing software from the 1990s, was called on to schedule pilots and crews. It’s handling capacity is in the hundreds, and could not handle the thousands of changes needed across the U.S.
No people. Pilots and crews were not assigned leading to a scramble, manual scheduling (of which the complexity for any one person is unfathomable), and stranded passengers.
We didn’t get into the lost luggage or customer service pressure (which was so bad that the police were called to the Nashville airport and threatened to arrest stranded passengers for trespassing). We didn’t get into the ruined holidays for thousands and irreparable reputational damage. Head over to Reddit for a few minutes, or simply search #epicfail. It’s not pretty.
The (less obvious than upgrade your 90s tech) solution
So what simple, cost-effective process could have saved them from the largest meltdown in airline history?
Resource management automation and process monitoring – from this century.
Most airlines still rely on mainframe scheduling apps or old software because that’s what they’ve always used. It’s not easy to implement a large-scale system. 47% of CFOs, according to PwC, want to prioritize predictive models and scenario analysis capabilities in 2023, so why don’t they? There are a few reasons:
The stigma for a rip-and-replace is typically in line with an ERP installation; tens of millions (if not hundreds of millions) of dollars, an implementation timeline that will outlast the C-suite, guaranteed overages, and the pain of switching processes. But a monitoring system that will flag issues could at least buy you time, time that Southwest could have used to get in front of the disaster that unfolded.
They don’t know what’s available. The thought, alone, of a system-wide replacement is daunting, but it’s tough to imagine a replacement when there hasn’t been any real advancement to process monitoring, resource management automation, and the ability to facilitate fast, data-driven decisions.
It’s early days for real-time capacity and scenario analysis. By knowing where the staffing shortages were going to be, Southwest could have mapped out where people are at any given time to the scale that they needed and staffed the other affected airports without issue. The tech is relatively young, although autonomous technology of that scale has been proven out.
Call it operational excellence (OPEX), or call it process and program automation. At the end of the day, it might save you from the types of headlines we all dread. And it costs a fraction of an ERP implementation. If you’re concerned, at all, about missing something so big that your brand might not recover from the bad press, or the feds sic Pete Buttigieg on you, look into resource management and monitoring upgrades.
About Moovila | Autonomous Work Management
Moovila’s resource management automation allows you to see capacity and schedules in real time, and how that influences your projects and programs. Having been tested at massive scales, it treats all processes the same by automating the data that’s the most live, giving you the most accurate picture of how you operate today.
Moovila’s RPAX monitoring technology continuously scans live work data and processes for the most realistic view of your work, risks, and shows you where future bottlenecks and what delays are going to occur.