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Southwest Airlines blames IT breakdown for stranding holiday travelers

Have they tried turning it off and back on again?

Winter storms and staff shortages were only the tipping point that sent Southwest Airlines IT infrastructure over the edge, leaving thousands still stranded across the US, chief operating officer Andrew Watterson has explained.

In a call with employees, Watterson blamed the extended delays and cancellations on outdated scheduling software, according to a transcript obtained by CNN.

In effect the winter storm that flowed across much of the US triggered a cascade event from which the company's IT infrastructure was ill-equipped to manage. Matching crew members with aircraft broke down as the airline struggled to meet Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations.

Southwest was ultimately forced to schedule crews to flights manually. A process Watterson described as an "extraordinarily difficult" and "tedious, long process."

To reduce the burden on staff and get planes, crews, and passengers in the air, Southwest made the decision to cancel more flights. "After days of trying to operate as much of our full schedule across the busy holiday weekend, we reached a decision point to significantly reduce our flying to catch up," Southwest CEO Bob Jordan said in a video message.

Jordan also acknowledged the need to upgrade the airline's infrastructure to avoid future IT breakdowns. "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 now," he said.

In 2017, Southwest completed a migration to Amadeus Altéa passenger service system, one of two industry standard platforms widely used throughout the aviation industry. Southwest Airlines declined to address The Register's request for additional information regarding the origins of the failure or the specific IT systems effected.

Southwest will continue to operate at a reduced schedule to reposition crew and planes where they're needed most. The airline claims it should be back on schedule "before next week."

According to FlightAware, of the 2,813 US flights canceled Wednesday, Southwest was responsible for 2,509.

Southwest attracts USDOT ire

The scale of the disruption had already attracted the ire of the US Department of Transportation. In a Tweet Tuesday, the USDOT called Southwest's rate of cancellations and delays "unacceptable," and promised to investigate whether Southwest is complying with its customer service plan.

And on Wednesday US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg characterized the situation as a "Meltdown," and called on Southwest to make customers whole in an interview with ABC early Wednesday.

"They need to make sure that these stranded passengers get to where they need to go and that they're provided adequate compensation not just for the flight itself…, but also things like hotels like ground transportation, like meals, because this is the airline's responsibility," he said.

The airline is encouraging customers impacted by cancellations or delays to rebook or request a refund at

Time for IT from this century?

Over the past year several airlines have announced sweeping upgrades to their IT infrastructure, in part to avoid pitfalls like the one Southwest is now digging its way out of.

This summer Delta announced it would modernize and migrate its workloads to Amazon Web Services, however it's not clear how much of the company's backbone infrastructure is bound for the cloud.

This spring, American Airlines went even farther announcing a similar partnership with Microsoft to migrate its data warehousing and legacy apps to a single operations hub on Azure. In addition to cutting operating costs, a key goal of the contract was to boost efficiency.

According to American, the integration with Azure will speed up bag tracking, enable preemptive rerouting based on weather conditions, and simulate larger changes using digital twins. The collaboration also involved the development of a mobile application that allows airline staff to access applications and communicate from wherever they are. These are all things we're sure Southwest wishes it had after the past few days. ®

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