Southwest Airlines passengers recall ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’

Photo (c) Patryk Kosmider - Getty Images

Why didn't this happen to other airlines? Experts explain.

The great Southwest Airlines holiday meltdown is officially in the books. And while Guinness doesn’t have a world record for such debacles, it might want to consider one. Given the various estimates of flights canceled and average passenger load, a potential 1.8 million travelers were left stranded, looking for alternate ways to get where they were headed.

Some of those Southwest passengers decided that instead of sitting idly by in an airport’s sea of madness, they would go straight to ConsumersAffairs reviews submission page and give an up-close-and-personal accounting of what they experienced.

Tiffany, of Covina, Calif., was booked on a Southwest flight to Dallas just before Christmas. She and her family experienced the beginning wave of the travel meltdown.

“We were on our way to the airport when we got a message our flight was delayed by almost two hours,” Tiffany told us. “We finally departed and arrived at our next stop and got stuck on the tarmac.”

“We fortunately got on another flight and finally arrived at our destination at 03:00 AM with three hungry and tired kids and found all of our luggage was lost....for the second time this year,” she said.

“This is your pilot, and guess what…?”

James, of Denton, Texas was also trying to get to his destination before the holidays. He said he was booked on a Christmas Day flight that was delayed seven hours.

“As we are taxiing out to take off the pilot says, ‘I'm sorry to say this but I'm over on hours.’ So we turned around and (he) dropped us off telling us two days after we waited in line with hundreds of people for one SWA associate to say ‘Sorry, wrong line.”

Bhuvan, of Raleigh, N.C., told us that when he arrived at the airport he learned his flight had been canceled. Then the alternate flight was canceled. When he finally got to his destination, his problems continued.

“Since my arrival after six days now I spent several hours on the phone with Southwest Airlines trying to track down my luggage,” Bhuvan wrote in a ConsumerAffairs review. “They were not able to give me any information about where my bags were or when they would be delivered to me.”

Kenneth, of Pleasanton, Kan., told us he was assisting two U.S. Marines in getting home for the holidays. By the time Kenneth posted his review at ConsumerAffairs on Dec. 26th Kenneth said the Marines were faced with multiple flight cancellations over five days.

“The folks at the ticket counter were probably as frustrated as everyone else is but this does not give them the right to be disrespectful to these kids who are defending our country,” Kenneth wrote. “The vouchers they received are worthless due to they are not transferable to other airlines so these kids can get home in a timely manner.”

So, how did Southwest face a Christmas catastrophe when other airlines didn't?

There was some snow and ice that might have played havoc with some of Southwest’s routes, but experts contend the bulk of the blame has to be pinned on archaic software that the company uses, drawing complaints from pilots, flight attendants, and other company employees for years. To them, this wasn’t a matter of if, but more of when.

“We're still using, not only IT from the '90s, but also processes when our airline was a tenth of the size,” pilots union president Casey Murray, told NPR's Morning Edition. “And it's really just not scaled for an operation that we have today.”

It’s not like Southwest didn’t have fair warning that its antiquated systems would one day hit it where it hurts. In an open letter to the company, last March, the union said that upgrading system technology was more important than an increase in pay. 

Will Southwest admit that technology is the cornerstone of its Nightmare Before Christmas? It’s too early to tell. 

“Companies can also be substantively fined for major failures like this one,” Zeynep Tufekci wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece about Southwest’s problem. “But if the fines are too small, companies will just see them as a cost of doing business and carry on.”

“Technical debt is real debt. It will eventually be paid by someone. And unless we take steps to hold companies and executives accountable for preventable — and foreseeable — failures, it will be we the public that keep paying,” she concluded.

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