Southwest Airlines meltdown: a reminder why software maintenance matters
IT WASN’T MOTHER NATURE’S FAULT
While the cancellation rate for most other major U.S. airlines – American, United, Delta, and JetBlue – ranged between 0 and 2% on the Tuesday before Christmas, Southwest had grounded 70% of its flights on Monday, and 60% on Tuesday. By Tuesday morning, Southwest’s schedule accounted for fully 2,522 of the 2,890 flight cancellations reported across the U.S.
The airline that has cultivated a scrappy, humorous brand since its founding in 1967 suddenly found itself tripped up by a crew scheduling system that couldn’t keep up.
The root cause for Southwest’s inability to keep its planes in the sky wasn’t weather after all. It was outdated software.
In a damning interview published by NBC and the Associated Press, Michael Santoro, a Southwest Captain and Vice President of the Southwest Airlines Pilot Association, said while the severe weather touched off the crisis, it was the airline’s “vastly outdated” IT infrastructure and scheduling system that ultimately led to the full-on meltdown.
“We fly a point-to-point network which can put our crews in the wrong places, without airplanes, mismatched. Our software can’t keep track of it,” Santoro said. He added the pilot’s union has been bringing this issue to Southwest’s attention on an annual basis, but the airline has failed to respond.
“They never update it. They never invest the money and resources they need to. So, we continue to have these issues.”
A DISASTER WAITING TO HAPPEN
Southwest’s employee scheduling system dates back to the 1990s, when Southwest was a much smaller operation than it is today. In 1990, the airline carried 19.8 million revenue passengers. In 202, the airline carried 123.2 million passengers. What was once a regional player based in Texas had long since expanded to a continent-wide footprint.
Southwest now carries over six times the passenger load, over a substantially wider geography, using a software system that hasn’t fundamentally changed since George Bush Sr. lived in the White House.
While the airline experienced a number of outages over the years, their impact was mitigated by the organization’s ability to fall back to largely manual processes – namely employees calling in from wherever they were, so the airline could rebuild its situational awareness and get them and their planes back in the sky.
Unfortunately for Southwest, by the time the lousy weather rolled in, just before Christmas 2022, the organization was far too large and complex for those old, manual processes to hold up. The phone-it-in Plan B simply couldn’t scale, and there was no fallback or failover.
LESSONS FOR THE REST OF US
Think about your own organization for a moment: can the software that supported your business decades ago – when you were likely a lot smaller and simpler – continue to get the job done today?
We all know the answer to that. The sad truth for most organizations is their software often remains static while the operational landscape continues to evolve. Organizations often develop applications and install systems within the context of monolithic, high-profile projects, then turn their attention to other things.
That’s a frightening reality. You wouldn’t buy a car or a house and forget to maintain it, would you?. So why does this backwards logic seem even mildly appropriate when running a business?
The stark truth is, there’s no way for infrastructure, tools, and processes to fluidly evolve in near-real-time, to perfectly reflect the challenges posed by a constantly changing business environment. But that’s still no excuse to walk away once the initial switch has been turned on.
To ensure the gap between infrastructure and environment doesn’t grow wide enough to swallow your business, start the new year by asking yourself the following critical questions:
- When is the last time you conducted a software inventory? Knowing what you have is the first – and most important – step toward improving the health of your software estate.
- Are you soliciting regular feedback from end-users? Software must align closely to evolving business needs and internal/external market conditions. Your people are your best resource to help you determine if you’re hitting that mark.
- Are you measuring software effectiveness against business outcomes? Code drives modern organizations. So, make sure your metrics reflect this.
- Does software development and maintenance have its own budget? Make sure code is uniquely visible within the overall IT operations spending and resourcing plan. Benjamin Franklin said it best, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”
- Are you benchmarking against your competitors? While you don’t ever want to be a me-too kind of organization, it can certainly help to ensure you’re at least in the ballpark. You can then innovate and differentiate from there.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It is important to recognize that what happened at Southwest Airlines is hardly unique to the airline industry, nor was it solely attributable to the weather. The roots of this brand-threatening event first took hold years earlier, as fiscally-driven leadership trimmed the wrong budget line items and allowed the code base to lag behind. No organization in any sector can afford for its software to flatline the business, because as Southwest learned – the hard way – you can’t compete if your software hasn’t been properly maintained.
If you’ve got questions about the health of your own investments in software, we’d love to hear from you.