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What REALLY Caused Southwest’s Massive Weekend Meltdown?

It was undoubtedly a terrible weekend for Southwest Airlines – but who is to blame for the meltdown? More importantly: Will it happen again?
If your Southwest Airlines flight was cancelled over the weekend of October 8-11, 2021, you were certainly not alone. A combination of factors came together to force the Dallas-based carrier to cancel over 2,000 flights, leaving travelers scrambling to get to their final destination.


Immediately, rumors began spreading on the reasons why flights were grounded. While some blamed weather and a lack of staff at air traffic control centers, others claimed unionized pilots were attempting subversive action to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates.


One day after returning to normal, the factors that lead to the disruption are becoming clear. However, the question that needs to be answered is: How can airlines prevent this from happening again?

Weather, Air Traffic Control Issues and Staffing Locations Create Perfect Storm

The issues began on Friday, October 8, 2021, when a combination of severe weather and air traffic control problems started affecting the network. Although much of the United States experienced a pleasant Autumn weekend, the Florida panhandle experienced heavy rain, grounding aircraft and preventing air crews and equipment to get to their next stations.


At the same time, staffing issues at air traffic control centers created downtime at certain centers. The New York Times reports the Federal Aviation Administration acknowledged a combination of personnel issues and a military exercise caused an outage lasting several hours.


The buildup of problems created a domino effect for the airline, resulting in many cancellations across the network. Rumors immediately began to spread that the issues were caused by pilots calling in sick to protest Southwest’s intentions to follow the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.


Although the Southwest Airlines’ Pilots Association (SWAPA) has spoken out against the mandate, the trade union denied they were involved in causing the disruptions. Instead, the group placed blame squarely on the carrier and their infrastructure.


“[Southwest] has claimed that the immediate causes of this weekend’s meltdown were staffing at Jacksonville Center and weather in the southeast U.S., but what was a minor temporary event for other carriers devastated Southwest Airlines because our operation has become brittle and subject to massive failures under the slightest pressure,” the union wrote in a statement. “Our operation and our frontline employees have endured continuous and unending disruptions since the first time our airline made headlines in early June due to widespread IT failures. Our Pilots are tired and frustrated because our operation is running on empty due to a lack of support from the Company.”


However, the union did not rule out further disruptions going into the holiday season. In a statement to The Wall Street Journal, the union warned that unless there are changes inside the airline, another meltdown could be imminent.

Problems Could Continue to Linger Into Holiday Season and Beyond

Staffing shortages and fragile networks continue to create issues for airlines, as the Southwest issue marks the second major airline meltdown in 2021. In August, Spirit Airlines experienced a similar issue, cancelling over 2,800 flights and losing $50 million in the process.

not2017 October 15, 2021

I think many people miss the fact that Southwest turns around aircraft within one hour of arrival. With a system wound so tight, it doesn't take many misses to cause a cascade of cancelations. With a combination of factors: weather, ATC, and then even a small amount of sick calls, the whole network crashes.