Southwest’s Descent Into Chaos

The year 2022 has been difficult for the airline industry, and Southwest Airlines was no exception. In December of 2022, Southwest Airlines suffered a major setback with tens of thousands of passengers affected by flight cancellations across their network in the United States and abroad.

What was the cause? A combination of record-breaking winter weather conditions, an outdated computer system, understaffed customer service teams and inadequate communication strategies all combined to create a perfect storm that caused massive disruptions throughout the month.

Southwest’s Turbulent December

Over the course of December 2022, Southwest Airlines encountered a slew of issues that adversely affected its customers and their experiences. The combination of factors – from a computer system outage to major weather events – created a perfect storm for Southwest Airlines, leading to many cancelled flights and significant delays for thousands of passengers.

In this post-mortem, we will discuss how these issues led to such a nightmare experience for customers and what can be done differently in the future to prevent similar problems from occurring again.

The first issue that caused disruption during the December period was when Southwest’s ground operations computer systems went down on December 27th due to a power failure. This meant that all check-in processes were halted at airports across the U.S., resulting in hundreds of cancelled flights and long lines of stranded passengers. The problem was compounded when days later, Southwest had to cancel thousands more flights due to a severe winter storm affecting cities from Washington D.C. to Houston.

The combined issues left thousands of travellers stuck at airports for hours on end with limited information about their flights or options for alternate arrangements. Many customers also experienced difficulties obtaining refunds or compensation for their cancelled flights, as Southwest’s customer service representatives were overwhelmed by the influx of calls and complaints.

Southwest’s Proprietary Software Failings

When it comes to the root cause of the December debacle for Southwest Airlines, most of the blame can be attributed to its proprietary software system. This system was not developed in-house but was acquired from a third-party vendor. Unfortunately, this particular system had demonstrated some known issues and instability, likely leading to its failure during December.

The December debacle was not a simple issue, as there were multiple contributing factors. The most significant of these was the failure of Southwest’s proprietary software, which resulted in their systems being unable to cope with the high levels of traffic that resulted from the winter storm. On top of this, Southwest had inadequate backup systems and protocols in place to handle system breakdowns. Furthermore, the customer service staff was insufficiently trained and staffed for periods of increased demand, leading to frustrated customers not getting timely responses or solutions.

Going forward, Southwest must focus on improving its IT infrastructure so that such issues do not occur again. This includes putting robust backup systems in place and even outsourcing some operations to third-party providers if necessary. Additionally, they should review their proprietary software and identify the areas that need to be improved. Finally, they must ensure that customer service staff are adequately trained and staffed for times of increased demand.

By taking these measures, Southwest Airlines can start to build stronger relationships with its customers by providing a more reliable service and restoring trust in the brand. At the same time, this will help to strengthen the entire industry so that travellers can continue enjoying safe and enjoyable air travel experiences.

The Causes of the December Debacle at Southwest Explained

The December debacle at Southwest Airlines was one of epic proportions and much better was expected from one of the leading airlines in the country. However, it wasn’t because of only one issue, as there were a whole host of causes that led to the epic December meltdown at Southwest. These causes can be identified as follows:

1.     Lack of redundancy in software systems

Southwest Airlines relies heavily on a proprietary software system called “Airline Operating System” (AOS). Unfortunately, this system had no backup or redundant systems to take over in case the main system failed, resulting in the December debacle.

2.     Poor scalability

The AOS was not built to scale up during peak times of traffic and could not handle the sudden influx of customers during the holidays. This resulted in major delays and cancellations, which caused great inconvenience for passengers.

3.     Insufficient customer service training/staffing

While many IT-related issues contributed to the failure, it is important to note that customer service representatives were not well-trained or adequately staffed to handle the large volume of customer inquiries. This caused confusion and frustration for passengers who could not find answers on time.

4.     Weather-related issues

Although IT issues were partly to blame, the weather was also a contributing factor. Airlines had difficulty deciding how many flights they should schedule, given the unpredictable winter storms that hit many parts of the U.S., resulting in increased delays and cancellations.

5.     Poor communication with customers

Southwest Airlines did not do enough to keep its customers informed during the December debacle, leading to greater anger and frustration on their part as they felt left out in the dark about what was going on.

Can This Perfect Storm Ever Happen Again?

Given the complexity of airline operations and the myriad of variables that can affect flight performance, it is extremely unlikely that any other carrier will experience a similar perfect storm to what Southwest Airlines did in December.

However, other carriers should still be aware of their own operational risks and ensure they are taking steps to mitigate them. This includes adequately training staff and having robust backup systems in place. Ultimately, by taking the necessary precautions, airlines can reduce the chances of experiencing such a disruptive event again in the future.

In the end, Southwest Airlines experienced an unprecedented issue during its December debacles which led to thousands of customers being disrupted. Although we may never see another occurrence like this again, all airlines need to be aware of potential risks and take steps to mitigate them. This way, airlines can continue to provide a high level of service for their customers and keep the entire industry running smoothly.

Damages and Costs Explained

The cost of Southwest Airlines’ December debacle has been estimated to be approximately $800 million and could potentially rise even higher. This includes the costs of refunding tickets for over 35,000 flights that were cancelled or delayed due to weather-related issues.

Additionally, the airline incurred expenses from rescheduling and booking passengers on other flights and investigating customer complaints. Finally, they had to spend money on compensating their employees who worked overtime in order to try and address the backlog of disruptions caused by the system outage.

All in all, this incident has been an expensive lesson for Southwest Airlines but will hopefully serve as a reminder for them (and other airlines) that there is always more that can be done to prepare for extreme weather events and other crises. With the right systems in place, they can help ensure that such incidents don’t occur again in the future.

Lessons Learned

The December debacle serves as a stark reminder of how quickly things can get out of hand when airlines are not adequately prepared to handle sudden changes in demand or extreme weather conditions. This incident has shown that there is always more that can be done to prevent customer disruption and dissatisfaction, especially when it comes to large-scale system outages.

Going forward, airlines must make sure their backup systems are robust enough to take on the load if their main systems fail; utilize predictive analytics to anticipate potential issues; have adequate staffing during periods of high demand; and have an effective customer service strategy to address inquiries in a timely manner.

By taking the necessary steps to prevent similar incidents from occurring again, airlines can ensure that their customers remain satisfied and trust them as reliable and dependable providers of air travel. This, in turn, will help strengthen the entire industry, making air travel safer, more comfortable, and more enjoyable for everyone. By putting these lessons into practice, Southwest Airlines can start rebuilding its reputation and become a model airline for others to follow.


In conclusion, it is clear that Southwest Airlines experienced some significant issues during the December period, which caused a great deal of disruption for thousands of its customers. Although such an incident was unavoidable due to the combination of factors at play, there are certain steps that can be taken in the future to mitigate these types of disruptions from occurring again. By doing so, Southwest Airlines can start providing more reliable customer service and restore trust in the brand.

By taking a proactive approach to addressing these issues, Southwest Airlines can start building stronger relationships with its customers and become a more reliable and dependable airline. Ultimately, this will help to strengthen the entire industry so that we can all continue to enjoy safe and enjoyable air travel.

Marc-Roger Gagné MAPP