Written by: Leonard Parker | Houston Business News | 13th October
COLONIE — Last weekend’s mass cancellations of Southwest Airlines flights may be a preview of the upcoming Thanksgiving travel rush if things don’t go the right way.
“Prepare for problems,” warned Jeanne Gagnon, president of Plaza Travel in Latham.
Moreover, Southwest might even reduce the number of scheduled flights in coming weeks, in order to avoid being overloaded and angering scores of holiday travelers if they can’t fully get back on schedule.
“No airline wants to be the airline that ruins Thanksgiving,” said Henry Harteveldt, an airline consultant and president of The Atmosphere Research Group.
It remains to be seen if there are fewer available flights for Thanksgiving weekend since any number of factors - ranging from weather to COVID-19 to other disruptions - could come into play.
And for now, Southwest’s weekend spate of cancellations and delays appears to be abating.
But experts say the weekend mess was emblematic of an airline industry emerging from last year’s COVID-19 shutdowns, and of some features unique to Southwest.
While not nearly as busy as Thanksgiving, Columbus Day weekend brings an uptick in air travel, which Southwest was unable to handle. As of Monday, more than 2,000 Southwest flights had been canceled since Friday.
On Tuesday afternoon, the FlightAware tracking website showed that Southwest had canceled 91, or 2 percent, of their scheduled flights for the day, and delayed 661 or 19 percent.
Reasons for the cancellations remain in dispute. Southwest initially pointed to problems with Federal Aviation Administration flight control operations in Florida – a major destination – although the federal government disputed that.
The delays also came a day after Southwest’s pilots union sought a court order seeking to delay the airline's mandate that employees all receive a COVID-19 vaccine. The union and airline both say there were no sickouts of other protests that caused the delays, although not everyone is convinced.
Some things are clear, however. Like other airlines, Southwest is recovering from what was essentially a year of lost air travel business in 2020 as millions stayed put at the height of the pandemic. Calling employees back to work and getting planes ready to fly again is an ongoing process, noted Gagnon.
“What happened to Southwest was the most dramatic and the biggest, but it has not been unusual for airlines to be canceling and changing flights,” said Gagnon.
Southwest may be vulnerable to disruptions for another reason, though.
They operate a point-to-point system of flight schedules in which their planes typically fly from one city then to another, such as the Albany-to-Denver-to-Seattle or Albany-to-Baltimore-to-New Orleans-to-Los Angeles routes scheduled on Tuesday.
Some other airlines, by contrast, use a hub-and-spoke system.
Delta, for example, had flights scheduled from Albany to its hubs in Detroit or Atlanta. From there, travelers would get another plane or take another flight to their final destination.
Point-to-point schedules look like a spider web on an aviation map, while hub-and-spokes look exactly like that.
Both have their advantages and disadvantages.
Point-to-point can offer lower fares and they can eliminate the need for travelers to change planes. It also works well with Southwest’s model of using one type of plane, the Boeing 737, which simplifies operations and helps keep costs down, noted Harteveldt
But there is less flexibility and there is potential for a “cascading effect” down the line if there is a problem at one point in the spider web, he said. Normally, Southwest is known as a reliable airline, although issues with COVID-19 and the airline's point-to-point system have complicated things.
From that standpoint, it’s possible that Southwest may limit or even cut some flights as Thanksgiving approaches in order to avoid another spate of cancellations and delays. That would provide them with a buffer of extra planes and crews if there is a problem or holdup in one location.
The airline, though, could cut the number of flights it has on short, busy routes, such as from Dallas to Houston, said Harteveldt.
Southwest officials on Tuesday wouldn’t say what they have planned. They typically notify airports at the end of the week on upcoming schedule changes. “We hope to restore our full schedule as soon as possible. As a note, the operational challenges were not a result of Southwest Employee demonstrations,” the company said in an email on Tuesday.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Albany International Airport showed Southwest with five outgoing flights in the late afternoon and evening, all of them on time.
To some degree, the question about the busy Wednesday-to-Sunday Thanksgiving travel window is almost moot since most of those seats have been reserved by now, said Gagnon.
Both Gagnon and Harteveldt agreed that, if possible, Thanksgiving travelers should leave earlier and return later - perhaps leaving and returning on a Monday. If you can, “Don’t travel the Wednesday before and the Sunday after Thanksgiving,” said Harteveldt.
And passengers can take some simple precautions to ready themselves for a potentially long day at the airport. Planning for problems can mean taking extra food, using carry-on baggage and taking the earliest flight in the day if possible, said Gagnon.
Such measures can all pay off if there is a cancellation or delay.
“Planning for cancellations is actually the best thing that people can do,” she said.