Low Cost & Regional Airline Business January/February 2023

Low Cost & Regional Airline Business January February 2023

The US airline industry was rocked by two, turn-of-the-year technology-related glitches that brought systems to a grinding halt. The first was the meltdown of Southwest Airlines between Christmas and New Year that saw more than 16,700 flights cancelled and which racked up costs starting at US$825 million. The second was the FAA system outage that halted departures nationwide.

The US transport authorities are now scrutinising whether airline executives overscheduled flights which under federal law is considered an unfair and deceptive practice. Southwest is only admitting that its systems became stressed from days of disruption across 50 airports due to an unprecedented storm.

Southwest has called its performance unacceptable – and has apologised, promising that its US$1 billion programme for IT systems upgrades would now be accelerated.

Interestingly, the latest results published by two of the ‘big four’ US carriers indicate a positive 2023 outlook so, instead of siphoning off profits for buybacks and dividends, money now needs to flow in the right direction in order to shore up essential infrastructure.

Let’s not forget that to access Covid bailouts, airlines had to suspend shareholder rewards that over the years have forced the business to do ever more with less. Which brings us to the vexed issue of the country’s National Airspace System. Such outages occur because the FAA is perennially underfunded and subject to a budget process that is not fit for purpose. “The December travails of Southwest Airlines would be an everyday occurrence if its capital allocation processes were as starved and unpredictable as the FAA’s,” remarked former FAA chief David Grizzle.

Southwest was quick to resume dividend payouts once the federal ban was lifted and yet when crisis struck, it was Southwest’s flight crews, airport employees and back-office staff who saved the day and recovered the schedule. All of which begs the question, where is the leadership at both system and airline level that depends on the loyalty of the rank and file to go beyond what is reasonable in order to paper the cracks in such fragile and fractured institutions?

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