Maybe the Southwest Debacle Is the Disaster We Needed

It’s the holiday season, and terrible weather is causing airlines to make a cascade of cancellations across the country. One airline — its jets and crews caught in the wrong places, its data and phone systems hopelessly inadequate — suffers a catastrophic meltdown, stranding thousands of angry passengers and employees for days as it struggles to knit the system back together.

Southwest? No, JetBlue, in 2007, in what became known in the industry as the Valentine’s Day Massacre.

There’s a bit of history here: The founder of JetBlue, David Neeleman, idolized the founder of Southwest, Herb Kelleher, and even worked for him before he started his own airline. Mr. Neeleman created his low-cost carrier in Southwest’s image. Keep in mind that Southwest’s people-first approach — encompassing both customers and employees — had served the carrier well until decades worth of cheerfully earned good will got canceled this week, along with most of Southwest’s flights.

Nearly 16 years later, seemingly nothing has changed except the logo on the fuselage. It was hardly a surprise when a severe weather system that had been forecast a week in advance produced cold and snow — in winter, in Denver and Chicago. So why the paroxysmal chaos from coast to coast, even in places where it didn’t snow? Because the industry is actually designed to operate this way; the breakdowns are guaranteed to continue unless the Biden administration’s pro-passenger stance can coax or cudgel it to behave otherwise.

In this year of so-called revenge travel — hitting the skies to make up for journeys lost during the pandemic — we want to fly in the worst way. And we are. Demand for flights is off the charts, and fares have gained altitude — they’ve been a significant component of inflation in part because the number of flights has not returned to prepandemic levels. Whatever slack existed in the network evaporated long ago, like the airplane smoking section.

We still have an industry that is running at roughly 85 percent of capacity and characterized by tight coupling, meaning that knock-on effects can quickly disrupt the entire network. That’s what happened in recent days with Southwest, which is particularly vulnerable because of its point-to-point routing — Dallas to Denver, then Denver to Seattle, say. (The other major airlines take a hub-and-spoke approach, funneling fliers and aircraft through central points, which can provide more flexibility.)

But even on blue-sky days, the industry’s performance is hardly encouraging. Through September of this year, more than 20 percent of all flights at Newark Liberty and John F. Kennedy airports, both serving customers from New York City, weren’t on time,according to Bureau of Transportation Statistics data.

Which means we haven’t had a week like this since, oh, Memorial Day, when waves of cancellations were caused by bad weather and a lack of crews because airlines couldn’t hire, or rehire, people fast enough to meet the surge in demand. Recall that the Transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, threatened to fine carriers over the cancellations (and slow refunds). The Department of Transportation also established a dashboard to help consumers understand their rights when flights are abruptly canceled. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont even called on the department to fine airlines $55,000 per passenger “for every flight cancellation they know can’t be fully staffed.”

The Biden administration seems to have recognized that lining up on the side of passengers, whatever their politics, is a no-lose issue. “Thousands of flights nationwide have been canceled around the holidays. Our Administration is working to ensure airlines are held accountable,” the president tweeted on Tuesday.

Passengers and employees search through luggage from Southwest Airlines at Los Angeles International Airport.Credit…Kyle Grillot for The New York Times
A passenger rests at Los Angeles International Airport, Dec. 27, 2022.Credit…Kyle Grillot for The New York Times

What’s disconcerting is that other members of Congress, airline regulars, haven’t viewed this issue similarly and given the regulators more carrots and sticks to work with or demanded more action from them. As was shown in the Boeing 737 Max fiasco, regulators can sometimes seem beholden to the regulated. Certainly, there was no appetite in the Trump administration for tighter airline (or any other) regulations. And the carriers have been able to keep the Federal Aviation Administration at a distance.

Airline deregulation began in 1978, and over the decades passengers have made a trade-off. They got lower fares and greater access to more airlines, including JetBlue and Southwest. Then came ultra-low-cost carriers such as Spirit, Allegiant and, most recently, Breeze, founded by Mr. Neeleman. Democratizing travel via competitive pricing has been great for nearly everyone.

The trade-off is that everything else about flying gradually deteriorated: comfort, seating, punctuality, baggage, amenities and customer service. Just when we think these trade-offs can’t get any grimmer, they do. Frontier, for instance, recently got rid of its telephone agents. Got a problem? Need to rebook because of weather? Chat with its friendly bot. Other technology, spurred by the pandemic, has allowed carriers to push more of the work on us passengers, from ticketing to checking bags.

We’ve got a perfect opportunity to make regulatory changes now that the carriers are landing massive profits. We need the carriers to thrive — but not at the cost of amplifying our misery as we move about the country, to borrow a phrase from Southwest. In a shift of tone, perhaps, President Biden has nominated Phil Washington, the chief executive of the Denver International Airport, as head of the F.A.A. Mr. Washington should bring more of the passenger’s perspective to the job. His predecessor was a former airline executive.

Mr. Buttigieg has launched an investigation and threatened to fine Southwest for not honoring its customer service plan — which says, for instance, that the company will notify passengers within 30 minutes of a flight being canceled. But airlines get to make their own customer service plans. How about letting passengers, backed by some regulatory muscle, help make new ones that are fairer to both sides of the transaction?

As for Southwest, the company is going to take a huge financial hit after canceling 70 percent of its flights earlier this week. The airline will be on the hook for hotel rooms and rental cars for stranded passengers and crews, not to mention reuniting thousands of lost bags with their owners.

Can the company survive? Absolutely. The airline and the culture that Mr. Kelleher built still have lots of loyal customers who will forgive Southwest for one week of madness, assuming the company brings operations up to industry standard before long. Customers forgave JetBlue, after all, for many of the same reasons. Let’s not forget that American, United and Delta — and before them, U.S. Air and Continental — have all experienced temporary calamities, though none as extensive as Southwest’s.

There’s also this: Who else you gonna fly? Southwest is an essential part of the nation’s air transportation network. We need it and all the other carriers. But before the next great meltdown, we also need a regulatory framework that gives passengers a better chance of getting home for the holidays.

Bill Saporito is an editor at large at Inc.

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