After one of the most high-profile air travel debacles in recent history, Southwest Airlines is searching for answers as to how it lost control during the holiday crunch and winter weather incidents. In total, the airline canceled roughly 15,700 flights during the crisis, beginning December 22, 2022. Although the company’s flight model differs from the traditional hub-and-spoke model used by other airlines, the issue likely stemmed from more than just bad weather and holiday travel — outdated software could be the primary culprit.
Specifically, industry experts — and Southwest’s own CEO Bob Jordan — cite employee scheduling software that launched around the same time as outmoded gaming consoles PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The nearly 20-year-old SkySolver software was overwhelmed by the high number of cancellations and delays due to winter storm Elliott.
The airline’s pilots have reportedly been calling for an upgrade in scheduling software since 2015, with demands coming up during union negotiations, as well.
In a New York Times op-ed, Columbia University professor Zeynep Tufekci called this gap between the existing software and necessary upgrades “technical debt,” with airlines failing to address the need for up-to-date systems capable of ongoing scalability. After avoiding the adoption of cloud-based systems and leaning on phone-reliant systems, the Southwest debacle proves the need for digital transformation in the airline industry.