To understand how routine airline flight disruptions have evolved into the collapse of every travel area affecting one million passengers or more, suffice it to think of the four-day odyssey of a single aircraft: the Southwest N8661A.

A follow-up to this Boeing 737-800, which contains 175 seats for passengers, shows how badly some airlines have prepared for the resumption of flights this year.

One can think of the N8661A as another piece in the puzzle where some of the pieces are constantly changing shape and size so fast that nothing connects with anything anymore.

It is difficult to get back on track without employees

As passengers have discovered last summer and fall, and are likely to find out more about the holidays, airlines that are short of staff have even more difficulty getting back on track. The cancellations last for long days. Views from California are delayed for many hours due to problems in Florida. Everything seems incomprehensible – when you are the people whose trip has been canceled and sleep in a hotel far from your destination.

Take for example the weekend break in the Southwest. A typical Florida hurricane delayed several flights, and then the Florida Air Control Center in Florida suffered from a shortage of manpower that caused other flights to ground. By the end of the day, 188 planes were in the wrong cities; Flights at 66 airports were affected, Southwest says. About 30% of the staff were not in the places they should have been.

But there was a factor that exacerbated the problem: Southwest lacked crew members anyway and did not have enough pilots and flight attendants to recover. It’s the same problem that hit American Airlines several times, including earlier this month, after winds in Dallas hit the company’s flights.

The planes and crews were not in the right place

“An airline has to keep moving. It’s building on the planes moving, the crews moving, and of course the passengers have to move and so do their bags. So all the parts need to be in motion,” says Bob Jordan, vice president at Southwest who will soon be named CEO.

Southwest’s N8661A – the plane’s license number – flew 16 times this weekend in October. The N8661A often flies five or six flights a day. During this period it had six cancellations, mainly because Southwest had no crew members available to operate the flight.

Such nonsense often delays flights for a day or two, but this time, company officials say, it has become a total collapse because of the aggressive schedule of crew members, who worked in meager manpower because of some employees who were sick. One thing that made the whole situation worse was the grounding of flights in Orlando, Florida, on October 8, where Southwest has a large number of workers.

“By the end of Friday, our planes were not in the right place and so were the crews. Of course, there were a lot of customers that it affected them,” Jordan says.

A series of malfunctions and cancellations

N8661A started the day in Norfolk, Virginia and was scheduled to fly to Baltimore; Tampa, Florida; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Orlando; Dallas; And finally, Little Rock, Arkansas, according to a prescription provided by the Southwest Company.

But he only came to Orlando. The Federal Aviation Administration has delayed flights and left some of them grounded in Florida for several hours due to bad weather, military training restricting commercial aircraft and a lack of flight controllers at the Jacksonville Flight Control Center. Southwest has announced that it has canceled its N8661A flight to Dallas because the Air Administration had to dilute air traffic. As a result, the company used another plane to fly between Dallas and Little Rock.

Unlike airlines whose planes are tied to one port, Southwest planes skip from city to city. Because the N8661A was stuck in Orlando instead of Little Rock, the plane was given entirely new routes to sit on: Dallas, then Miami, Austin, Texas, Chicago and Houston.

This was a good plan, except that Southwest reported that a combination of several events caused a four-hour delay in the flight from Orlando to Dallas. Another plane made the other two flights and Southwest had to cancel the last two.

After the plane landed in Dallas 238 minutes late, the N8661A again got a new runway and flew to Houston, Las Vegas and Phoenix. The plane was supposed to continue to Burbank, California, but that flight was also canceled because the crew’s shift was over, as federal safety laws limit the length of time flight attendants and pilots are allowed to work continuously.

Saturday continues the same trend

On Saturday the flights were worse than on Friday: four flights departed and three flights were canceled. N8661A started Sunday on a flight from Phoenix to Houston. He never reached his next four destinations. Southwest says they had to cancel the scheduled flight from Houston to Tampa, Florida for flight crew-related reasons. Another plane continued its course from Tampa. Instead, N8661A flies to Dallas, Tampa, Nashville, Tennessee, and Panama City, Florida. He made five flights that day, with one cancellation, and was now in southwest Florida for the night.

This created another problem – early flights from Panama City were all canceled on Monday, three days after the disruption began, due to staff unavailability, Southwest said. N8661A was grounded in Panama City until 5:30 p.m. local time, then got another route and flew to Nashville, St. Louis and Fort Myers, Florida. A N8661A-related connexion flight was canceled and three others were flown with other aircraft while the N8661A crashed in Panama City.

By Tuesday, Southwest had re-assembled its schedule – for the most part. Sources in the Southwest say they typically hold between 12% and 15% of the workforce on standby, who are willing to replace air crew members who are about to exceed shift hours, workers who have fallen ill or those who are “stuck” where they are not supposed to be. But Jordan says the airline was well below that level of drives on the second weekend of October.

We learned the lesson from the weekend events

“We had fewer additional staff than we usually have and fewer additional staff compared to what we need,” Jordan said. “Anyway sure we had problems on Saturday and Sunday because of the unusual impact of these events, but they could have been smaller if we had the usual amount of extra staff.”

Since the summer, there have been more cases of sick workers and non-sick leave in the Southwest – some of them flowed because of the corona, Jordan says. Staff members took additional flights for extra pay, prompting trade unions to complain about employee attrition. “Even if they took those extra flight shifts at a higher rate, there are not enough workers because there are so many flights to fly,” he said.

The airline now says it has learned its lesson from the weekend’s events. Southwest has reduced its flight schedule for the holidays. That should leave more than 20 percent of crew on alert.

By Editor

One thought on “The odyssey of one plane exemplifies the storm into which the aviation industry has fallen”
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