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Southwest Airlines says it's ready for the holidays after its meltdown last December

A Southwest Airlines jetliner approaches Denver International Airport on May 26. The airline has spent months preparing for the holiday travel season after a meltdown last December that left thousands stranded.
David Zalubowski
/
AP
A Southwest Airlines jetliner approaches Denver International Airport on May 26. The airline has spent months preparing for the holiday travel season after a meltdown last December that left thousands stranded.

For Emily Cornelius, last December was not one to remember.

The Denver resident was flying home on Christmas Eve after visiting family in Richmond, Va., when she landed in Chicago for a layover.

Her Southwest Airlines flight was canceled, so she left the airport and spent the night with a friend. Eventually, she was able to rebook for the day after Christmas, but when she arrived at the airport she faced a string of delays before Southwest cancelled her flight for a second time.

Like countless other Southwest customers late last year, Cornelius found herself stuck in the terminal — her flights canceled, her checked bag lost and her prospects for getting home dim.

"The vibes were not good," Cornelius said. "We either felt trapped in the airport or we're spending money that we don't know if we're going to get back on options to be outside of the airport."

She ultimately took a Greyhound bus back to Denver and arrived on Dec. 29 — five days after she was originally scheduled to get home.

Travelers wade through the line for service at the Southwest Airlines check-in counter in Denver International Airport on Dec. 27, 2022. Over a 10-day period last December, the airline cancelled more than 16,000 flights.
David Zalubowski / AP
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AP
Travelers wade through the line for service at the Southwest Airlines check-in counter in Denver International Airport on Dec. 27, 2022. Over a 10-day period last December, the airline cancelled more than 16,000 flights.

Nearly one year later, Southwest is hoping for a do-over from last year's holiday meltdown, when a combination of extreme winter weather and a cascading set of technical problems led the airline to cancel 16,700 flights over a 10-day period in December.

Many would-be fliers were unable to rebook their flights or rent a car. Baggage claims overflowed. Customer service hotlines clogged up. The debacle cost Southwest hundreds of millions in lost revenue, prompted scrutiny from congressional investigators and led once-loyal customers to swear off the airline once and for all.

But this year, the airline says it's invested in new weather equipment and upgraded its technology ahead of the holiday rush in a bid to reassure customers and avoid a repeat of last year's performance.

"The disruption we had last winter was really hard on our customers and our employees. It weighs heavily on all of us here at Southwest Airlines," the carrier's chief operating officer, Andrew Watterson, said during an October earnings call with investors.

"We are now so much better prepared for these extreme weather events," he said.

How Southwest is trying to recover

Much of the U.S. was hit with a destructive blizzard in December that snarled operations for multiple airlines, including Southwest.

But what could have been a brief hiccup for the airline turned into a major crisis due, in part, to outdated computer systems and other technical setbacks.

Southwest estimates the fiasco cost it as much as $825 million in operating expenses and reimbursements and acknowledged that it saw a dip in bookings in January and February. The company also said in a regulatory filing last month that it may face a fine from the Department of Transportation after it determined that the airline "failed to provide adequate customer service assistance, prompt flight status notifications, and proper and prompt refunds."

Since last year, however, Southwest officials say they've put money into technological upgrades and de-icing improvements to better prepare their operation to handle logistical snags posed by severe weather.

A woman walks through unclaimed bags at Southwest Airlines baggage claim at Salt Lake City International Airport on Dec. 29, 2022.
Rick Bowmer / AP
/
AP
A woman walks through unclaimed bags at Southwest Airlines baggage claim at Salt Lake City International Airport on Dec. 29, 2022.

Among the efforts Southwest undertook since the meltdown was a big push to prepare for snow and ice. The carrier bought additional deicing trucks and other ground equipment, and increased staff at airports in colder climates.

As of October 1, Southwest says it's hired about 12,800 new employees so far this year, including more than 60 crew schedulers.

The airline also says it's better prepared to respond to staffing issues during crisis situations. One of the problems during last year's disruption was that crew schedulers using manual processes couldn't keep up with the deluge of cancellations, but Southwest says it has upgraded its crew-assigning software and streamlined internal communications.

Clint Henderson, managing editor at the travel website The Points Guy, says the Dallas-based airline is hoping it's in a position to overcome another perfect storm like the one it experienced last year.

"They are making a lot of moves to try to get ahead of this for Christmas," Henderson said. "I'm just not sure everything's going to be in place if there's a big meltdown like there was last year."

Southwest took a reputational hit, but customers are back

Those who swore off Southwest Airlines after last December may be finding that it's not so easy one year later.

One Southwest official said on the October earnings call that the airline had a higher percentage of seats booked for this December's holiday period than they had at the same point last year, suggesting customers weren't fleeing in the wake of last year's meltdown.

"Truth be told, consumers have short memories for this stuff," Henderson said. "Consumers are really price conscious more than they are sort of booking away from an airline over issues that they've had in the past."

Though Emily Cornelius said she isn't traveling for the holidays this year, she has flown with Southwest since her ordeal.

The airline reimbursed her more than $600 for hotels, meals and her bus ticket and gave her a $200 voucher when she initially rebooked her flight, which she used on another Southwest ticket earlier this year.

Cornelius said it's too pricey for her to fly another airline simply to protest her experience with Southwest, even if she might like to after what she and many other customers endured last December.

"I don't think that they've been held accountable for not performing their due diligence before this incident," she said. "You know how many people are going to fly your airline. You took their money. You found a seat for them. You know how many people are coming. Why can't your system handle that?"

The holiday travel chaos caused Cornelius to lose out on a chance to perform at a Denver comedy club and miss four days of work at her day job. Though she applauded the efforts of airport staff who she said did their best during the chaos, the experience soured her on the top brass at Southwest, a carrier she'd always liked until then.

"I didn't trust them as a company," she said. "I felt really upset on behalf of myself and everyone else that they promised things to."

I'm booking a flight for the holidays! What should I do?

Henderson, with The Points Guy, says if you don't want to just take an airline's word for it that your flight will be on time, there are things you can do to make sure you have a smoother trip this holiday season.

Check the weather ahead of your trip at your airport and the one you're flying to, as well as the airport your plane is scheduled to leave from before reaching your location, he says.

Download the airline's app on your smartphone to make any necessary rebooking easier, and have a backup plan in case you get stranded, such as getting on standby for another flight with a different airline or flying out of a different airport.

Also, it's best to book your trip on a credit card that has delay and cancellation insurance.

If your flight is delayed, you can try to get a seat on another airline, but make sure the airline you bought your original ticket from will pay for it. You're only entitled to a refund if an airline cancels your flight and you decide to skip your trip.

Even if you can't control the crowds or the airlines, Henderson says you can take small steps ahead of your journey to ensure you're better prepared to deal with any curveballs.

"Consumers have to be their own best advocates these days," he said, "because sometimes — as we've seen last Christmas — the airlines were completely overwhelmed."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Hernandez