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Southwest promotes internal IT executive to CIO in wake of that Christmas meltdown

She's got a lot of work to do

Heads keep rolling upward at Southwest Airlines, as the biz announced that its VP of Technology was being promoted into the now-vacant Chief Information Officer position.

Lauren Woods, who has been at Southwest since 2010, will succeed retiring CIO Kathleen Merrill in the role, but don't go thinking this is in response to Southwest's widespread IT outage in December that stranded hundreds of thousands of holiday travelers and reduced some parts of the airline to paper and pen scheduling. 

According to the airline, Merrill had decided in September 2022 to leave early this year, so she was already on her way out the door when the whole mess happened.

In her new role Woods will be responsible for managing the company's technology investments, including $1.3 billion in upgrades and system maintenance planned for 2023. Woods will also be "heavily focused on the transformation of Southwest's enterprise data platforms that drive the Company's data science, analytics, optimization and system integrations," the airline said. 

When she served as VP of Technology, Woods helped establish Southwest's cloud infrastructure, and created a new development and delivery platform "for complex application ecosystems." 

When we asked what sort of work Woods would be doing to address the December outage, Southwest sent The Reg a statement from the new CIO in which she referred to the $1.3 billion figure and said lessons learned from the outage were part of that budgeting plan. 

"We identified some functional gaps in our processes and have partnered with a third party to study what happened in December and inform our ongoing work to mitigate the risk of a repeat," Woods said in the statement. 

Anyone taking responsibility for that whole holiday thing?

If this sounds familiar - Southwest promoting leaders who arguably should have been in the chain of responsibility for the December outage - that would be because it's happened once already. 

In early January, Southwest announced the promotion of several leaders, including the VP in charge of planning the company's aircraft network, who would replace newly-promoted Chief Operating Officer, Andrew Watterson.

Watterson blamed scheduling software for the holiday IT outage that stranded tens of thousands of passengers, which raised the question as to how much responsibility he and his replacement bore for it, given their role put them in charge of Southwest's flight operations center. 

Southwest told us in January that it wouldn't comment on personnel matters, so it's unclear how much involvement Watterson, his replacement Adam Decaire, former CIO Merrill, or new CIO Woods actually had in the outage or recovery efforts. 

As was the case with Decaire's promotion, Merrill's departure was planned in advance of the outage. Southwest told us last month that it had planned the January date of Decaire's promotion announcement back in November, so it's possible Woods' promotion announcement was planned prior to the outage, too. 

The airline didn't directly respond to questions we put to it regarding Woods' promotion or the nature of her role in the outage.

Southwest has been sued by customers who were stranded as a result of the outages, who said in a case filed in late December that Southwest had failed to promptly refund their tickets. The company has reportedly been working daily to process refund requests, but has missed a deadline set by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg by which it was told to issue refunds.

On December 28, Buttigieg told Southwest CEO Robert Jordan that the company had 20 days to issue refunds. That deadline has come and gone, and many travelers said they're still waiting for their money back. ®

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