Southwest Airlines worked to avoid another meltdown this winter. Is it paying off?

‘Tis the season for family gatherings, bountiful spreads and … airline meltdowns?

Last year’s holiday headaches were primarily a result of Southwest Airlines and its major system meltdown.

Even the airline itself is aware. In a video distributed to employees, which USA TODAY had a chance to review, Southwest’s Chief Operating Officer Andrew Watterson acknowledged that last winter was a mess after the airline canceled nearly 17,000 flights over a 10-day period in December.

“When we have winter operations that slow us down, and we can’t get crew out in the system, guess what happens? Well, if you don’t get out day one, you’re not out day two and day three, and it really put a stress on our crew system, and our crew network essentially fell apart,” he said in the video, referring to how crews are often scheduled on multiday trips, so flights that get canceled can cause ripples through the employee schedule for many days.

But now, Southwest insists, it’s ready for whatever Mother Nature brings this winter, and customers are proceeding with cautious optimism thanks to the airline’s goodwill gestures.

“The disruption we had last winter was really hard on our customers and our employees,” Watterson said during the airline’s October earnings call. “Preparing to prevent something like that from happening again was and is an imperative. Of course, the disruption was triggered by an unprecedented storm that simultaneously hit several of our most critical stations, but there were many causes, not just one, that led to it.”

A Southwest Airlines plane at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
A Southwest Airlines plane at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

How Southwest responded last winter

In the aftermath of last winter’s meltdown, Southwest offered reimbursements to its customers for expenses like hotels, rental cars and other flights, as well as goodwill gestures including a cache of Rapid Rewards points and other vouchers.

Marc Kruskol, who got stuck in Denver on his way to visit family in North Carolina after his flight was canceled last year, ended up returning home to California when backup flights were booked up for days. He eventually got a full refund after the debacle in December, along with a voucher worth around $500, drink coupons and other compensation.

“I definitely did want and felt we deserved compensation for the hassle we went through and for everything surrounding it,” said Kruskol, who is 66 and runs a public relations firm. “But once that all happened and seemed to be taken care of, then that was fine.”

Crystal Muñoz was stranded at Honolulu International Airport with her family of seven during the meltdown. She said she had to sort through a free-for-all pile of bags to find their belongings, but about a month later, the family received vouchers for 25,000 Rapid Rewards per person.

“It’s a decent amount of vouchers for a family who likes to travel,” she said.

A Salt Lake Police Officer and his K-9 partner inspect unclaimed bags at Southwest Airlines baggage claim at Salt Lake City International Airport on Dec. 29, 2022, in Salt Lake City, Utah.
A Salt Lake Police Officer and his K-9 partner inspect unclaimed bags at Southwest Airlines baggage claim at Salt Lake City International Airport on Dec. 29, 2022, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

What Southwest did to prepare for this winter

Public documents from Southwest show the company addressed its shortfall from last year in three broad categories: improving winter operations, enhancing cross-team collaborations and accelerating operational investments.

That all translates to: buying more equipment like deicing trucks and changing some workflow procedures to help flights operate more smoothly when it’s snowing; making it easier for employees on different teams to work together when something goes wrong thanks to more streamlined internal communications; and spending big to update its IT infrastructure.

“We are now so much better prepared for these extreme weather events,” Watterson said during the October earnings call.

As a preview, Southwest canceled 33 flights between Nov. 17 and Nov. 26 – just 0.1% of its schedule for the Thanksgiving travel period, according to flight-tracking website Flightaware. American Airlines canceled just six flights over the same period, and Delta had a similar cancellation rate to Southwest's. United Airlines' cancellation rate was higher, but still only 0.6%.

Meanwhile, 20% of Southwest flights over that period were delayed – the highest rate any of the major U.S. airlines. But Southwest's average length of delay was less than its competitors at just 29 minutes.

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Are customers buying it?

The goodwill gestures from last winter and Southwest’s publicity around its improvement seem to be paying off with bookings.

“We have higher booked load factors for the December holiday period this year than we had at the same point last year, which indicates to me we're not experiencing significant book away as a result of last year's operational disruption,” Ryan Green, Southwest’s chief commercial officer, said during the earnings call.

Muñoz and Kruskol have both returned to Southwest already, despite their experiences last winter.

Kruskol said he’s taken a few flights with Southwest since last winter, and they’ve mostly gone smoothly – though he’s still undecided on whether he’ll travel for this year’s holidays.

“There's always the worry of, ‘What happens if I get stuck again?’” Kruskol said. But if he decides to go, he said he will most likely fly with Southwest because he has many Rapid Rewards points saved, and the airline allows two free checked bags.

“I’m a very frugal guy,” he added.

Muñoz, meanwhile, used the Rapid Rewards voucher from last winter’s disruption to surprise her daughter with a trip to Disney World for her 18th birthday.

“It worked out well. It was a great memory for our family,” she said. “We were actually kind of thankful for the drama over the holidays because it was able to give us our next holiday, which was her birthday, a bonus vacation.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Southwest Airlines outlines what it did to prepare for winter travel