How can anyone forget the photos and images of mounds of luggage sitting wherever they could find a spot at most major airports, back during the winter storm of 2022? And what about the thousands of stranded passengers in dismay during the holidays, with plans and gifts that literally couldn’t get off the ground?
The “bomb cyclone” of 2022 nearly broke the internet with a never-ending list of headlines, as media covered the cancellation of 5,100, and delay of 8,400 flights on Friday, Dec. 23. That morning, Boston’s Logan Airport reported that 25 percent of its outbound flights were cancelled, and at nearby LaGuardia, about 33 percent of scheduled flights weren’t going anywhere, according to The New York Times.
The following Wednesday, just five days later, most major airlines had mostly returned to normal operations with on-schedule, delay-free flights. Fewer than 40 flights were cancelled that day among Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, and United Airlines.
Things at the gates of Southwest Airlines; however, were anything but back up and running. More than 2,500 flights were halted on Wednesday alone, which was about 62 percent of what flights were booked. The New York Times reported that Southwest customers would reach their destinations by taking rental cars or spending hundreds of dollars on a ticket with a different airline.
As Southwest tried to regroup and work toward normalcy over the next week, the number of flight cancellations grew to almost 17,000 – an $800 million financial hit – that led to a 2022 fourth quarter net loss of $220 million.
The Model that Helped Southwest Fail
Southwest uses a “point-to-point” route model, which The New York Times says enables passengers to fly directly to and from smaller cities, without having to lay over at a major hub like in Denver or New York. It can mean getting from Oklahoma City to Phoenix in under three hours.
Unlike a “hub system,” in which a pool of crew members and pilots can report to work at a major airport and pretty easily recover after a storm, Southwest’s system doesn’t have the key standby team. It’s much harder to staff smaller market airports in this sense.
Even though Southwest had carefully designed its “point-to-point” model, the massive flight cancellations proved that the airline had failed.
Southwest CEO Bob Jordan addressed the catastrophe on Twitter, in a video message that got about 2.4 million views. He talked about the scheduling system being outdated, unable to keep up with Southwest’s growth, becoming the largest carrier in 23 of the top 25 United States travel markets.
“Our networking system is highly complex,” Jordan said in the video. “And the operation of the airline counts on all the pieces, especially aircraft and crews remaining in motion to where they’re planned to go.”
He said the airline’s top priority was getting all the pieces back into the right position, and doing it safely.
“The tools we use to recover from disruption serve us well 99 percent of the time,” Jordan said, “but clearly, we need to double down on our already existing plans to upgrade systems for these extreme circumstances.”
President Casey Murray of the Southwest Airlines Pilot Association echoed Jordan’s call for system upgrades, and said the union had been pressing the airline “for years to update its I.T. and infrastructure from the 1990s.”
It’s not that Jordan’s unaware of the need for better technology, or refusing to invest. It’s one of his top priorities for 2026.
“We’re behind,” he said at a November 2022 media day. “If you took our crews, we have a lot moving all over the country. If they get reassigned, someone needs to call them or chase them down in the airport and tell them.”
This winter wreck wasn’t the first technology trouble for Southwest. In June 2021, technology was to blame for a day of delayed and cancelled flights – an issue that took days to resolve.
That’s What Automaton is For
Isn’t that exactly what automation’s all about in a case like this – a quick, automated way to contact crew members who get reassigned?
Automation would put an end to the calls and airport chases needed to reassign crew members, and most likely, it could have saved thousands of stranded airline passengers.
As Murray argued, it should never have fallen to the wayside.
In the face of such a massive volume of flights and passengers needing to be taken care of, the manual work must be automated. Only with automation can companies like Southwest manage the overwhelming tasks that IT teams are handling behind the scenes, which could likely include redeploying flight staff.
December 2022 proved that outdated technology won’t cut it, and that organizations must be able to scale to match the size of the problems. For Southwest, intelligent automation would help prevent critical downtime. The IT team would be able to focus on the complex work needed to get flights back on track, rather than the repetitive outreach to crew members.
Four IT Processes Well-suited for Automation
From a bigger picture perspective, Southwest must be ready for heightened travel and risk for winter weather before the 2023 season arrives. Automating the following IT processes would prepare Southwest, and any airline with aging tech, for a winter season of unexpected events and demands:
- IT service desk automation (ITSM)
Simple, repetitive tasks like scheduling and handling ticket volume can be dealt to IT service desk automation, and taken from the hands of overworked IT staff. Manual tasks, especially when they reach a volume as high as they did in the winter 2022 airline season, take up valuable time that IT needs to address complex issues.
Consider the countless IT tickets that came across the service desk for Southwest’s IT teams. Regardless of the company, manual methods make it too easy to make mistakes. There are always the inevitable distractions, which take IT’s focus from complicated jobs to things that could easily be automated.
- Incident auto-remediation
Troubleshooting alerts, along with ticket creation and enrichment are part of an IT process that automation would well-suit. Dealing with issue remediation and addressing problems within an organization’s infrastructure costs organizations an unreasonable amount of time that should be spent elsewhere.
In the world of airline travel, auto-remediation is an ideal solution for identifying and repairing issues sans human intervention. Outages of some sort are bound to happen, especially in a major industry that impacts millions of people, but auto-remediation can help companies like Southwest return to normalcy, with a fraction of what it took during the winter storm. Plus, auto-remediation can actually work to treat symptoms before they become outages.
- VM provisioning/deprovisioning
The IT teams of today’s organizations have evolved, and because of business demands, they’re no longer able to support applications and workflows on-site. There’s a greater level of complexity that organizations must be able to manage, even when chaos comes out of nowhere. Companies, including those in the airline industry, have moved from on-premises work to a combination of cloud, multi-cloud, and more, as provisioning requires multiple actions.
Similar to the delay Southwest faced when managing thousands of grounded flights, some provisioning tasks need to be completed by other external teams. Having an extra step, in these cases, means a significant delay can accompany the organization’s average response time – an unfortunate restraint for business and operational efficiency.
- Critical system and network checks
Organizations new and old have plenty of, if not too many checks to handle, that impact areas of IT like network operations (NetOps) – exceeding what a human can do and guaranteeing no errors along the way. During tons of system and network checks, any mistakes made subtract time and money from the business, and it creates too much risk for failure to manage unplanned issues.
Automated system and network checks can even help to prevent outages – a benefit that could transform the airline industry by helping companies get ahead of potential outages and problems. For example, automated proactive network testing enables organizations to schedule health and compliance checks with comprehensive reports, resulting in continuous, optimal network and performance.
Outdated technology holds organizations back from promoting continuous, normal operations, as well as being able to match (and beat) industry competitors. No matter what season we’re in, automation must be part of an organization’s everyday functions, enabling IT to powerfully support the business and its growth.
Learn how Resolve’s automation can help your organization ensure smooth handling of events and demands – even those that come without notice. Request a demo.