Southwest Airlines Co.’s technology chief says it’s safe to book spring break getaways on the carrier, even though it hasn’t upgraded key software — thanks in part to a backup system based on 100 volunteers.
“I have full confidence for spring break and summer and the hurricane season and going into next winter” that Southwest can avoid a repeat of December disruptions, said newly appointed Chief Information Officer Lauren Woods.
The airline is testing a new version of crew scheduling software that was overwhelmed during the holiday meltdown that led to 16,700 flight cancellations. The software from GE Digital, a unit of General Electric Co., could be ready in a matter of weeks, Woods said in an interview.
In the meantime, Southwest is relying on quicker technology updates, revised processes and a crew of about 100 employees who can be called in to help manually contact pilots and flight attendants with new assignments should another crisis occur. While the company has described them as volunteers, they are salaried workers who have other responsibilities most of the time.
“If we should get ourselves into that situation — that’s a huge if; I don’t see it happening — and we don’t have that GE Digital solution yet — then I do think we could activate that volunteer group to come in and help things very quickly,” Woods said. “I don’t foresee us needing to do that.”
Southwest is the target of a federal probe into whether the carrier’s scheduling violated rules forbidding unfair and deceptive practices when it left millions stranded during the holiday fiasco. The airline is awaiting the results of a report it commissioned from consultant Oliver Wyman on what went wrong during the late December crisis.
But Woods said it’s already making some changes, including the software tests, creating a “dashboard” to better coordinate flight crewing decisions and installing a new early alert system.
Southwest named Woods to the role of CIO and senior vice president of technology last week. It said the 13-year company veteran was tapped for the job after her predecessor decided in September to shift to an advisory role.