Southwest promotes key staff right after that Christmas meltdown

Union claims bosses are flying the biz into 'graveyard spiral'

In the wake of a Christmas meltdown that saw it cancel some 16,700 flights, one would expect heads to roll at Southwest Airlines, but that's not the case.

Instead, several of the company's leaders - including the VP in charge of planning its aircraft network - are being promoted.

Southwest announced a quintet of leadership promotions Monday that it said are part of structural changes that began last September and which "will strengthen our operational execution and better serve our people and customers."

The most notable promotion is going to Adam Decaire, SWA's former vice president of network planning, who is now the company's senior veep of network planning and Network Operations Control (NOC).

SWA describes its NOC as "the heart for major operational decisions and coordination," which includes employees like dispatchers, meteorologists, crew schedulers and others who keep its network of planes moving smoothly ... usually.

Southwest said Decaire's promotion "creates a tighter feedback loop between schedule design and schedule execution while adding resiliency and reliability to the network," and said he has championed the design and deployment of new technologies and solutions for network planning at SWA. 

"[Decaire] will continue to provide his vast knowledge of the airline's network combined with a unified organization bringing together Network Planning with the NOC," Southwest said. 

Decaire is replacing Andrew Watterson, who in October was promoted to become SWA's Chief Operating Officer. It's unclear how much involvement Decaire had with mitigating the Christmas breakdown, and SWA told us it "would not comment on personnel matters."

Other promotions announced today see new leaders in the company's marketing and customer experience team, culture and communications group, legal and sales.

No Chief Optics Officer?

Southwest did tell us the date for yesterday's announcement was fixed back in November, but it apparently didn't stop to consider changing any decisions after its lousy Christmas. 

COO Watterson blamed outdated scheduling software for the late December breakdown that saw thousands of passengers stranded for days - something that falls right into Decaire's wheelhouse.

According to the New York Times, Southwest is unique among large carriers in its use of a point-to-point airline scheduling model, which allows it to fly faster, cheaper routes without a central hub. 

It also means that, when there's a disruption to scheduling and planes aren't at large hubs, there's no standby ground crews available to pick up the slack. With flights canceled and crews unavailable, the disruption tore through Southwest's flight network, leaving them with only one way to reset: Get crews back to their original locations and start over.

IT problems were also blamed, with some pilots and crew waiting hours to reach Southwest operations staff, who were overwhelmed with requests. 

Customers left stranded in the mess filed a lawsuit in late December alleging that SWA failed to promptly refund tickets and violated its contractual obligations to its passengers. 

Southwest pilots say leadership is to blame

Is unclear what sort of changes Decaire will bring to SWA's flight scheduling, or if he'll be able to prevent a future breakdown without an overhaul so extensive it changes Southwest's business model. 

One thing is perfectly clear, though: The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association thinks bigger changes are needed.

"How did we go from the most stable and profitable airline in history to the greatest meltdown in airline history," SWAPA 2nd Vice President, Tom Nekouei, asked in a blog post. "In our case, it's three words: Lack of leadership," Nekouei said.

Nekouei said that SWA's executives had sent plenty of "saccharine corporate-communications-department-written and legal-counsel-reviewed 'we're sorry' and 'I love you'" messages that he said "obfuscate the actual corrective action that is absolutely necessary to pull out of this graveyard spiral that our Company's so-called leaders have placed us in."

Systemwide failures at SWA have been increasing in frequency over the past 15 years, Nekouei said, and "were all results of conscious operational, manpower, or tech infrastructure investment decisions made at the senior levels of our company."

Nekouei said that there hasn't been any real accountability for decision makers over the multiple breakdowns SWA has suffered over the years, instead arguing that Southwest has repeatedly let the same people do the same thing despite their failures. 

"Many of us thought that perhaps this event would be the final straw that snaps the Southwest Board of Directors out of their fiduciary slumber … it is clear that Southwest management is circling the wagons as they have always done in the past," the union VP said. 

In an SEC filing last week, Southwest said it expects to report losses in the fourth quarter, with pre-tax earnings likely to drop by between $725 and $825 and net operating expenses increasing due to customer recompensation efforts. ®

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