A common critique of leadership by IT professionals on social channels such as Reddit is an inability or unwillingness to commit time, money and resources to updating outdated IT systems that underpin the organization’s ability to function.
The idea of IT being a cost center rather than a foundational component of an organization is an outdated philosophy in the digital era, as technology is now the leading driver of innovation across virtually all industries.
However, that messages appears to have been lost at Southwest Airlines, which is still recovering from a meltdown that many are attributing to complex and outdated flight scheduling systems that essentially broke amid a historic holiday season winter storm that swept the U.S. late last week into this week.
Bob Jordan, the airline’s CEO, in a statement released on the company’s website, said the airline, the largest carrier in the country, operates a highly complex network that requires all aircraft and crews to “remain in motion” to their destination to keep scheduled flights operational. However, that didn’t happen due to weather-related flight cancellations during one of the busiest travel seasons of the year.
Those conditions forced an “unprecedented” number of daily schedule changes that overwhelmed the airline’s flight scheduling tools and ability to recover. While public statements don’t dive much into details, Jordan says the airline needs to upgrade its systems.
“The tools we use to recover from disruption serve us well, 99% of the time; but clearly, we need to double down on our already existing plans to upgrade systems for these extreme circumstances so that we never again face what’s happening right now,” the airline executive says in a statement.
According to statements from the Southwest Airlines Pilot Association (SWAPA) and social media comments, the airline’s IT challenges were a long time coming.
SWAPA, the union representing the airline’s pilots, says the operational collapse was not a surprise to anyone but the airline’s leadership.
“A systemic failure of Southwest Airlines leaders to modernize, support, and staff its operation leaves every frontline employee, Pilots included, tired of apologizing to our passengers,” the statement reads. “For more than a decade, leadership shortcomings in adapting, innovating, and safeguarding our operations have led to repeated system disruptions, countless disappointed passengers, and millions in lost profits.”
The airline’s network has grown increasingly complex and has essentially outgrown the airline’s ability to withstand weather and technology-related disruptions, the union says, adding that it has called on leadership to fix those technical issues.
“Once again, we call for investing in infrastructure that will improve conditions for both our passengers and pilots. Infrastructure in the forms of crew scheduling software that takes into account our point-to-point network, a modern collective bargaining agreement that reflects best practices in today’s demanding operation, and communication tools that would have allowed for displaced crews to remain in constant contact with our Company.”
The union also detailed how these concerns have been brought to leadership for many years, but the issues remained.
In an article about the fiasco, The Washington Post also cited SWAPA and other unions who have long raised concerns about the airline’s scheduling systems.
The Transport Workers Union, whose Local 556 represents flight attendants at Southwest, likewise said on Twitter on Wednesday that the meltdown was avoidable, and said that the airline should have invested in passengers and workers, rather than paying dividends to shareholders.
Southwest declined to answer questions about its technology investments and didn’t share new information about its recovery efforts Wednesday. Its scheduling system relies on manual reports that crew members give of their locations and available time remaining to work within a period.
In short, the moral of the story here is that viewing IT systems and technology as a cost center rather than a department of highly skilled technologists who can help make the organization more efficient and resilient will likely lead to disastrous consequences.
Those consequences include an anticipated significant impact on fourth-quarter revenues. According to CNBC, a similar incident in October 2021 cost the airline about $75 million, but this event has lasted longer and impacted more travelers.
Imagine what operating at a third of your organizations normal capacity for several days would do to your bottom line, not to mention what it would do to your relationship with customers. On top of that, your communications staff is sent into emergency mode to deal with the barrage of bad press.
If there is an IT system that is holding the operation together with toothpicks and bubble gum, have those conversations with leadership before it is too late
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