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TWU Local 556 president on Southwest's canceled flights

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When you combine one of the worst winter storms in recent memory with the busiest travel period of the year, you're going to have a lot of travel delays. But when you look in detail at who is flying again and who isn't, one airline stands out. Southwest accounts for almost 90% of all canceled flights in the U.S. today according to the tracker FlightAware. Southwest employees are also trying to make sense of the situation.

And Lyn Montgomery is president of the Southwest Flight Attendants Union. Thank you for joining us.

LYN MONTGOMERY: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: In the close to 30 years that you've been a flight attendant, have you ever seen anything like this?

MONTGOMERY: No. This is just a complete debacle. It's so embarrassing and so disheartening.

SHAPIRO: I mean, we've heard reports of flight attendants themselves having to sleep in airport terminals. What have you heard from your members?

MONTGOMERY: Oh, that's absolutely true. Our flight attendants have been without hotels. They have had to spend the night, in best-case scenario, on cots, which is horrible, in-flight attendant lounges and in worst-case scenarios, just, you know, alongside passengers. We also have had to wait on hold for unbelievable amounts of time for instructions from crew scheduling. Flight attendants have sent us their screenshots of their holding times, and it's has been anywhere from three, eight, 12 and, most egregious cases, 17 hours.

SHAPIRO: You said this is embarrassing and disheartening. Let's try to pull back the curtain on what's going on. Because yesterday, Southwest canceled almost 3,000 flights. That is more than - 10 times more than the next airline. So what made Southwest different from all the other airlines in this storm?

MONTGOMERY: This is basically the house of cards has fallen. This is something that TWU Local 556 has told the company over the years - the pilots union has said the same thing - that we need to invest in our IT infrastructure, that the systems we have in place cannot handle the operation that we utilize today. And eventually, we're going to have a system failure so grave that something of this magnitude could happen. And today, we have this situation where we don't even need to say the evidence anymore. It's all here, that this has happened.

SHAPIRO: You said it was an IT failure. Can you explain, like, what exactly it is that went wrong, what it is that Southwest does differently from the others?

MONTGOMERY: It's just about the systems not being able to handle the mass amount of cancellations and rescheduling that needs to occur. And the way that they have to notify their flight crews is a manual process. Most of the notifications required, you actually have to talk to a crew scheduler. If you have 1,200 flight cancellations and you need to talk to even half of those flight attendants, that becomes an incredibly taskful (ph) thing to do, and you can't get it done in time. And that's why flight attendants have been on hold.

SHAPIRO: I've also been hearing about the difference between the hub-and-spokes model that many airlines use and Southwest's model, which is a little bit different. So, like, United has a hub in Chicago, and Delta has a hub in Atlanta, but Southwest tends to go from point A to B to C to D rather than all returning to the central home base. Is that part of what made this so problematic for Southwest?

MONTGOMERY: So we do have a different system. We have point to point and almost a hybrid of hub and spoke a little bit with some mega stations throughout the system to facilitate things like nonstops. And when one of those systems fails, yes, it becomes difficult to recover. I think it has to do with proactively and preemptively canceling more in the eye of the storms. You know, you'll see other airlines doing much more cancellations when storms are predicted. Whereas Southwest has held on and really been hesitant to cancel - somewhat understandably at times. However, if you can't get back up and running, obviously, you're just making the situation much worse.

SHAPIRO: Oh, so in maybe a counterintuitive way, canceling more flights ahead of time could lead you to not have to cancel quite as many flights after the storm hits.

MONTGOMERY: Absolutely, because now we're having to cancel flights just to get the operation back in sync. Basically, we're like a row of dominoes. And once one goes down, it all follows. So the management is trying to find a way to reset it, but that's a very difficult task and - which is why it's taking many days of cancellations to provide recovery.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. The U.S. Department of Transportation has called this unacceptable. Do you think there's a role for the government to play in fixing this problem, short and long term?

MONTGOMERY: Yes, I do. I have an appointment today with Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, and I am very happy that he's been responsive and is willing to speak with me.

SHAPIRO: So you've talked about IT. You've talked about routing. What about staffing? Because we heard, as we were coming out of the pandemic, that air travel bounced back much more quickly than hiring. Was staffing part of the problem here?

MONTGOMERY: You know, that has been something that we have felt has not been an issue. It is not an issue today. There were some issues with staffing, you know, after and during the pandemic. But we're fully staffed. In fact, we hired almost 4,000 flight attendants this year alone.

SHAPIRO: I know that you and your members are seeking a lot of answers right now, but is there anything you would like Southwest passengers to understand about this situation?

MONTGOMERY: Well, I would like them to know that Southwest Airlines flight attendants have a very unique fondness for our customers. We really like to ensure that you have a great experience when you're traveling on Southwest Airlines. We're very sorry that we keep having to say we're sorry to you. And we just ask that you pack a lot of patience and remember that we're kind of in this right there with you. And we, the leaders here at TWU Local 556, we will hold Southwest Airlines executives accountable for the situation and make sure that they restore faith back into Southwest Airlines again.

SHAPIRO: That's Lyn Montgomery, president of TWU Local 556, the union that represents flight attendants at Southwest Airlines. Thank you for joining us.

MONTGOMERY: Thank you so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: Southwest Airlines did not offer a spokesperson for comment today but issued a statement apologizing and acknowledging the disruptions were unacceptable, writing, we are working with safety at the forefront to urgently address widescale disruption by rebalancing the airline and repositioning crews in our fleet, ultimately to best serve all who plan to travel with us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.