Sep 20, 2023 - Economy

Southwest Airlines CEO says they're ready for winter after last December's meltdown

A Southwest Airlines flight. Photo: Daniel Knighton/Getty Images

Southwest Airlines CEO Robert Jordan says he's confident the meltdown last December that paralyzed the company's operations won't happen again this winter.

Driving the news: During an interview at the Denver airport Wednesday, Jordan outlined a host of improvements, from software and operations upgrades to additional hiring and equipment, to prepare for the winter season.

  • As he spoke, thousands of employees were being trained on how to de-ice airplanes and jetways. The company also added four new de-icing stations and increased the number of trucks by 60% to improve capacity.
  • The software shifts include better airport-specific weather forecasts and optimization to reroute planes and flight crews.

What he's saying: "It was very painful for our customers, our employees, but it's made us a better company," he told Axios.

  • "I feel really good about the winter," he added.

Why it matters: The air travel debacle that led to more than 15,000 flight cancellations near the holidays hit Southwest harder than other airlines and led to heightened scrutiny, including a congressional inquiry and customer revolt.

  • His comments are designed to reassure the traveling public ahead of the coming holiday season, particularly in Denver, a hub for the airline where extreme weather contributed to much of the delays.

Of note: The company says its loyal customers have returned and its brand image is back to pre-disruption levels because "we had a lot of goodwill in the bank."

  • "Now that can't happen again," he quickly cautioned.

Between the lines: Even before winter arrives, Southwest is facing a different challenge: The threat of a strike from its airline pilots.

  • Unlike Delta, United and American, the Dallas-based airline has yet to come to a labor agreement with its pilots and flight attendants. Union workers planned to picket Southwest's company party Wednesday in Denver, where the company has 6,200 employees.

The other side: Jordan said the negotiations are making progress and the outstanding sticking points involve scheduling and pay rates.

  • "No. 1, we want them to be paid, inflation is real," Jordan said. "Second, I don't want the distraction for them."
  • He couldn't offer a date for contract resolution, but made clear: "I just don't see the potential for a strike."

The big picture: The broader concerns about declining airline demand that sent stocks falling earlier this month is not reaching Southwest, Jordan said.

  • Like others, he doesn't expect to get back the 15-20% of business — mostly from business travelers — post-pandemic, but said the airline is not seeing any weaknesses in its numbers.

Go deeper: Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan on rebuilding reputation

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