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Southwest to describe overwhelmed scheduling system in Senate hearing

Southwest Airlines Co.’s operations chief plans to tell U.S. senators that the carrier’s scheduling systems became overwhelmed during a late-December storm, leading to a breakdown that forced thousands of flight cancellations and cost the company more than $1 billion.

The winter system moved across the U.S., triggering a cascading series of problems for Southwest that weighed on the carrier’s ability to communicate among its teams and get crew members in place, according to prepared testimony from Chief Operating Officer Andrew Watterson.

“As the situation escalated and close-in cancellations grew, Crew Scheduling simply couldn’t keep up with the overwhelming volume of changes,” Watterson says in the testimony, a copy of which was seen by Bloomberg. The executive will appear Thursday before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee to discuss the recent issues.

The December crisis, which persisted even after other carriers had recovered, has drawn heavy scrutiny from lawmakers, regulators and passengers. The airline grounded more than 16,700 flights over the last 10 days of the month, ultimately choosing to cancel about two-thirds of its daily operations over several days to reset its network.

Still, Watterson plans to defend Southwest’s so-called point-to-point network strategy and will point out the company’s ongoing investments in technology. It’s currently assessing operations and upgrading systems to avoid another breakdown, as an outside consultant conducts an independent review.

“Southwest is intensely focused on reducing the risk of repeating the operational disruption we experienced in December,” he says.

A collapse of communications and coordination among the airline’s network operations control center, crew scheduling and local operations hampered efforts to recover, Watterson says, resulting in “an unprecedented amount and frequency” of changes to crew schedules. Pilots and flight attendants were left scattered across 50 airports, in many cases separated from the aircraft they were supposed to be on.

Scheduling software from General Electric Co. unit GE Digital that’s normally used to help recover from disruptions was unable to work backward through the deluge of cancellations to repair crews and aircraft.

More than 1,000 pilots were on duty for at least 15 hours straight as they waited for the airline to update their schedules, according to a memo prepared for senators before the hearing. The writeup, which reveals new information about the extent of the problems, cites information from the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association.

The long days increased the number of pilots who said they couldn’t work due to fatigue, according to the memo. A peak of 98 pilots had to be pulled from duty due to fatigue on Dec. 24, compared to just nine on Dec. 29.

Pilots are generally required to have at least 10 hours of rest between shifts, meaning the long days could have run afoul of federal regulations. The committee didn’t say whether it was a legal violation or not, and the rules have provisions to allow for unintended violations due to bad weather and other factors.

The Dallas-based carrier has “summarily ignored” warnings from its pilots for years about inadequate crew-scheduling technology and outdated operations processes, according to separate written testimony submitted by Casey Murray, president of the union.

Southwest “struggles to manage nearly any disruption, regardless of the cause,” Murray said. “Our recent history – and the data shows – a pattern of increasingly disruptive operational failures, mis-prioritization of resources and hollow leveraging of our culture to cover up poor management decisions.”

Senator Maria Cantwell, the Washington Democrat who is chairwoman of the committee, met with several people on a video conference Tuesday who were inconvenienced by the recent Southwest issues. She vowed to support legislation to broaden passenger protections, without specifying its provisions.

“We’re certainly going to make sure there are consumer protections in this marketplace,” Cantwell told reporters after the event. “We don’t think this is the last time a weather event or some particularly challenging event will hit the system.”

While acknowledging airline stumbles in the past year, the industry believes the government’s air-traffic system also should share in the blame for flight disruptions, according to written testimony by Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president of legislative and regulatory policy at the Airlines for America trade group. Pinkerton pointed to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Jan. 11 computer failure and other recent issues that caused thousands of delays and cancellations.

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