Southwest Airlines network resembles “a house of cards” says UB operations expert

Business person stand in front of a house of cards as it begins to fall apart.

The debacle they’re dealing with is unfortunately, “not a surprise,” she says

Release Date: December 29, 2022

Natalie Simpson.
“So if you want to offer robust, reliable service with this network, then you also need to be spending money to maintain your problem-solving capability. And Southwest hasn’t been doing that. ”
Natalie Simpson , PhD, Chair, Department of Operations Management and Strategy
School of Management

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Even as the blizzard of 2022 has thankfully ended and things begin returning to normal on other airlines, the massive crisis at Southwest Airlines continues.

“My first reaction is, it’s not a surprise,” says Natalie Simpson, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Operations Management and Strategy in the School of Management at the University at Buffalo. Simpson is an expert in complex logistical networks, emergency response operations and operations management, especially in disorganized environments. She also is an experienced volunteer firefighter, line officer and certified emergency medical technician.

Ironically, back in the 1990s, Southwest was recognized as an innovator.

“Southwest used to be my hero,” Simpson says. “They were so innovative in terms of operations. Among those innovations, they created an extremely efficient network that could offer people comfortable service at a lower price.”

Simpson explains that unlike big name airlines with older “hub-and-spoke” style arrangements, the Southwest network consists primarily of shorter flights, with aircraft flying “point-to-point," dropping off and picking up crew members as the planes tour the country.

 “That’s why when you buy tickets on Southwest you are more likely to have at least one connection,” she says. “Instead of ‘hub-and-spoke’, this network is more like a set of tangled, intersecting loops. This newer style of network has been very successful. The problem is that this network is also more delicate. It’s more prone to falling down with any given disruption because it has more failure points that can break. It also becomes ‘shakier’ faster if you reduce the resources supporting the network, like laying off personnel during the pandemic and then failing to restore staffing to earlier levels.

“That’s still not a reason not to use this kind of network,” she continues, “but the problems it faces are more complicated owing to the design. That means you need to invest in your ability to protect the network and to respond to problems. So if you want to offer robust, reliable service with this network, then you also need to be spending money to maintain your problem-solving capability. And Southwest hasn’t been doing that.”

She notes that some of the media coverage has mentioned that Southwest Airlines is using a ‘legacy’ system for scheduling, making do with an IT system that may be decades old.

“Southwest hasn’t done much in terms of investing in tools that support scheduling even as they grew this more daring type of network,” she says. “That means that their folks don’t have what they need to get this system back on its feet again. Their network relies on flight crews changing planes as readily as passengers, but their scheduling system doesn’t allow them to creatively re-assign available crews once the original plan grinds to a halt.

“I read that their schedulers are actually mapping this out manually, because the IT system doesn’t support creative problem-solving during disruption,” she adds. “The overall operation is like a house of cards. Everything is fine so long as there are no disruptions. But all it takes is one breath and the house of cards falls flat, and won’t reassemble itself.”

And while this is happening now to Southwest Airlines, Simpson predicts there will be more major disruptions like this happening to other companies in critical sectors like transportation.

“We’ve seen this before with other corporations,” says Simpson. “It now appears okay to completely fail. In a certain sense, failure is even logical, in that the purpose of a public corporation is to maximize shareholder value while respecting the laws that bind it. So unless corporations start incurring penalties that make this kind of failure highly unprofitable, giving them the financial incentive to maintain the resources needed for problem-solving during disruptions, we will see this happen again.”

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