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Southwest CEO promises not to ruin the holidays with another travel meltdown

<i>Seth Herald/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>Travelers wait in line at the Southwest Airlines ticketing counter at Nashville International Airport after the airline canceled thousands of flights last December.
Seth Herald/AFP/Getty Images
Travelers wait in line at the Southwest Airlines ticketing counter at Nashville International Airport after the airline canceled thousands of flights last December.

By Jordan Valinsky, CNN

New York (CNN) — With millions of people expected to fly in the coming days, Southwest Airlines is vowing there won’t be a repeat of last year’s operational meltdown that ruined Christmas for travelers.

Southwest CEO Bob Jordan said this week that “it will never happen again, I promise you that,” in regards to last year’s chaos over Christmas break that canceled 16,700 flights and left two million passengers stranded.

Aviation Week first reported Jordan’s remarks, which were made Thursday at a Wings Club luncheon. An airline spokesperson confirmed to CNN his comments.

Last December, a winter storm barreled through the US and disrupted thousands of flights. Although many airlines were able to recover relatively quickly, Southwest didn’t return to normal operations for several days. Crewmembers were left stranded because they were unable to communicate with their dispatchers and schedulers, and the airlines’ legacy technology could not keep up with the rate of changes.

Jordan said the airline developed software internally, now being used, that he called “a game changer.” The Dallas-based airline is investing $1.3 billion on technology projects this year, about 25% more than it spent in 2019, the last full year before the pandemic.

“What you do today typically is, all airlines, you solve the metal or the aircraft, and then you throw that solution to the crews, and then have to solve the crew routing,” Jordan said about the new software. “A lot of times the metal problem makes the crew problems even harder, so they’ve come up with something that actually solves that together.”

The airline is still feeling the affects of last year’s disaster. In October, Southwest said it was bracing for a fine from the US Department of Transportation, however it was “not able to estimate” how much the fine could be.

Earlier this year, Southwest released an “action plan” to prevent another nightmare. It called for increasing the availability of winter equipment and staffing at some airports, investing in technology to help it quickly restart operations during extreme weather, and improving communication and decision-making processes across departments that handle flight operations.

The airline reported it lost $800 million at the end of last year due to the costs and lost revenue associated with the service meltdown. Then it reported it took another $325 million hit to revenue during the first three months of this year due to the spillover effect on ticket sales.

Southwest’s holiday debacle caught the ire of its pilots’ union and Congress. The union had previously testified that the operation was held together by “duct tape” and that the airlines’ technology failures were predictable and avoidable because the system had failed multiple times “with increasing frequency and magnitude.”

– CNN’s Chris Isidore contributed to this report.

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