When modernity stumbles: An airline saga

SWA chaosAs many social theorists have pointed out, key characteristics of modernity include the reorganization of space and time, the precise coordination of productive processes, and the rationalizing impact of money.  We take these processes for granted and perceive them as “natural” until the system fails, revealing how precarious these integrated networks are beneath their veneer of order.

I and 250,000 other airline passengers experienced this on July 20-21 when Southwest Airlines’ computer system experienced a catastrophic meltdown.  The source of this collapse and the failure of the company’s backup systems have not to my knowledge been revealed in much detail.  And in reality the why didn’t much matter to me and, I suspect, most of the passengers who found themselves camped out in airports with no flights available for many hours and in some cases days.  What we knew is that the system was in collapse, Southwest ground personnel seemed as uninformed as the rest of us, and the cascading failure spread from the airline in all directions to include car rental agencies and hotels.

Here’s my saga.

Albany (ALB), 7/20,  2100 hrs, ET.   My evening flight to Albuquerque with a connection at Chicago Midway is running late.  No big deal.  Ground personnel in Albany announce that there is a computer “problem” but that most of our connecting flights are running late, too, suggesting that when we get to Chicago, most of us will make our connections.  Some of them may know or suspect that the computer systems are down and that the finely tuned coordination of Southwest’s flight system would most unlikely unravel.  But no one suggests that we return home and fly after the mess is cleaned up.

Chicago (MDW), 7/20, 2215 hrs CT.  Chaos in the terminal.  The list of canceled flights, including mine, scrolls by endlessly.  There’s a long line to a gate desk, and I get in it with a few others from my flight, although there are no Southwest personnel working the halls to explain where we should queue and for what.  Two hours pass and I’m still probably 90 minutes away from reaching a Southwest staff member.  Comments from passengers who make it to the front of the line indicate that it’s pointless to wait because the computers aren’t working well and there are no flights to transfer to, now or tomorrow.  (Later it’s revealed that Southwest has canceled 700 flights that day, which must represent–what?–at least 100.000 passengers.)  Southwest personnel are giving away bags of peanuts and bottles of water but no information.  There are rumored to be cots and blankets available in Terminal A.  My fellow passengers seem surprisingly cheerful or at least resigned. Presumably Southwest flight crews have hit their FAA-determined service limit and are forced to rest.  No other crews are available to replace them.

What to do?  Wait around and hope that something opens up?  Head for a hotel and come back in a few days?  Take a midnight cab to O’Hare and pray that another airline can accommodate me?  A riddle.

swa-passengers

Then I discover, more or less by accident, that a Southwest flight to Denver is departing and that it has a couple of seats available.  To my astonishment, I’m allowed to board even though the maimed system can produce no boarding passes.  What the heck; Denver gets me within driving distance of Santa Fe, my ultimate destination.

Denver International (DEN), 7/21, 0230 hrs MT.  Hundreds of passengers are wandering around like survivors of a zombie apocalypse.  A courteous Southwest employee tells me that there might be a seat on a flight to Albuquerque in 10 hours.  Maybe.  (I later learned that this flight was canceled, along with 450 others on 7/21.)   OK, I think, time for a rental car and a motel room.  There’s one room left at the airport hotel, a Westin.  $575 plus tax, I’m told, which is above my pay grade.  The nice desk clerk at the Westin, who has little else to do at 0300 hrs, tells me that every hotel room within twenty miles of Denver International is booked.  Worse still, every rental car in the airport has been snapped up by evacuating Southwest passengers, a story that I confirm by calling the toll-free numbers of three rental companies, after which I give up.  At this point I feel not like the survivor of a zombie apocalypse but like one of the zombies.

Last ditch strategy: American Airlines has ticket agents in the check-in area at 0400 hrs.  One tells me that there’s a seat available on a United  flight to Albuquerque leaving at 0755 hrs.  The flight, which lasts about an hour, costs considerably more than my entire round-trip ticket on Southwest.  But I purchase it without hesitation.

Albuquerque (ABQ), 7/21, 0930 hrs MT.  On the ground in New Mexico and headed for a shower and sleep in Santa Fe.  My luggage isn’t there of course.  It is delivered to me 36 hours later in Santa Fe on a day when Southwest canceled 250 more flights.

Lessons?  For me the lesson is not that Southwest is an incompetent airline, although it arguably should shake up its IT staff until they can make its systems suitably robust.  I actually like Southwest: its simplicity and democracy and the absence of Mickey Mouse fees and the ability to change flights without penalty and its transparent frequent-flyer program.  It doesn’t promise more than it (usually) delivers, which I guess is consistent with the fact that so far it hasn’t  offered compensation commensurate with the financial harm that I and many other passengers suffered.

To a social scientist the Southwest meltdown is an inevitable expression of capitalist logic, the unceasing effort to squeeze more profit out of operations.  For Southwest this has given its shareholders 160 consecutive quarterly dividends.  How does it obtain these profits?  Among other things, it gins up a high load factor (87 percent average occupancy in June 2016 and close to 100 percent on most of the flights I’ve been on in recent months).  It tightens up its flight turnaround times to keep its expensive planes in the air generating revenue.  All that’s fine until there’s a hiccup in the system, with ripple effects that can last for days.  After all, if your planes are already full, you have a limited capacity to re-book passengers when a flight is canceled.  When you cancel a thousand flights, the system totally seizes up.  This is an inevitable result of designing your system for profit rather than robustness—the ability to adapt successfully to the challenges of a complex, unpredictable world.

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