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What caused Southwest's holiday meltdown? It wasn't just weather, pilots say

How Southwest flight cancellations snowballed
Southwest Airlines pilots union official describes how problems snowballed 03:39

The Southwest Airlines meltdown over the holiday week has reignited calls for updated infrastructure to prepare for future disruptions. While a historic nationwide storm was the initial cause of flight delays and cancellations, pilots say the company's scheduling software caused a "snowball effect."

Capt. Michael Santoro, vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association and a pilot for the carrier for more than 13 years, told CBS News the infrastructure can't process crew reassignments after about 300 changes.

"The storm was the catalyst that started this whole event, but the major problem is that our scheduling IT infrastructure is outdated and can't handle the massive cancellations that had to happen that day when the weather event occurred," he said Wednesday. "You get this snowball effect where it can't keep track of where pilots are, flight attendants are and airplanes are."

Southwest said Thursday it expected to return to normal operations Friday after canceling more than 2,000 flights daily for multiple days. Other U.S. airlines, meanwhile, had rebounded from the winter storm disruptions earlier in the week.

As thousands of passengers were left stranded, pilots were also left waiting for information, Santoro said. 

"Wait times for scheduling was over 4 or 5 hours to find out what our next assignment was," he said. Some crew members had to book hotel rooms or sleep in the airports if rooms weren't available, he added.

But, the issues with Southwest's scheduling software aren't new to Santoro.

"We've had a meltdown once or twice a year for the past several years," he said. 

The pilots association said in a statement the problem "began many years ago when the complexity of our network outgrew its ability to withstand meteorological and technological disruptions."

There had been past discussions about the need for new infrastructure, but "the investment wasn't made," Santoro said.

In a Christmas Day message to employees obtained by CBS News, Southwest CEO Robert Jordan acknowledged a need to modernize operations. 

"Part of what we're suffering is a lack of tools. We've talked an awful lot about modernizing the operation, and the need to do that. And Crew Scheduling is one of the places that we need to invest in," the message says. "We need to be able to produce solutions faster. We need to be able to communicate with each other where it doesn't involve a phone call. Those things have been committed to and invested in, and you're going to see improvements there—I just want you to know that."

The Senate Commerce Committee and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg have said they will investigate the causes of Southwest's cancellations.

Kathryn Krupnik contributed to this report.

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