April 18, 2023 - 8:15 am
Updated April 18, 2023 - 7:31 pm
DALLAS — Southwest Airlines planes were briefly grounded nationwide Tuesday for what the airline called an intermittent technology issue, leading to more than 1,800 delayed flights just four months after the carrier suffered a much bigger meltdown over the Christmas travel rush.
The hold on departures was lifted by late morning, according to Southwest and the Federal Aviation Administration, but not before traffic at airports from Denver to New York City backed up.
At Harry Reid International Airport, there were 202 incoming and outgoing Southwest flights delayed and three flights were canceled, according to flight tracker FlightAware. Southwest is Reid airport’s busiest commercial air carrier and it flew 1.4 million of the 4.2 million passengers in and out of the airport in February.
“Southwest has resumed operations after temporarily pausing flight activity this morning to work through data connection issues resulting from a firewall failure,” the Dallas-based airline said in a prepared statement. “Early this morning, a vendor-supplied firewall went down and connection to some operational data was unexpectedly lost.
“Southwest teams worked quickly to minimize flight disruptions. We ask that travelers use Southwest.com to check flight status or visit a Southwest Airlines customer service agent at the airport for assistance with travel needs. We appreciate the patience of our customers and employees during this morning’s brief disruption.”
Southwest urged customers to check on their flight status “and explore self-service options” for travel as the airline worked on restoring its operation.
By midday on the East Coast, more than 40 percent of all Southwest flights were delayed, and the airline accounted for nearly two-thirds of all delays nationwide. On the positive side, Southwest had only about a dozen flights, according to FlightAware.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg retweeted an FAA post about the ground stop, adding, “We are here to ensure passengers have strong protections when airline failures like this affect their plans.” He referred travelers to a Transportation Department checklist of passenger rights, and his press secretary pointed out that “no other airlines experienced disruptions.”
Tuesday’s delays added to the picture of an airline that has struggled more than most with technology issues.
“It was a 17-minute ground stop. This will have no long-lasting effect on Southwest’s reputation,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst with Atmosphere Research Group. “What matters now for Southwest is getting to the cause and doing all it can to ensure incidents like this don’t occur again.”
Rob Britton, a former American Airlines executive who teaches crisis management at Georgetown University, said the damage from Tuesday’s incident will be minor but will add to the erosion of Southwest’s image. He said Southwest has underinvested in technology while growing rapidly, and it suffers from an “insular culture” that “keeps them from looking outside for solutions.”
In December, Southwest canceled nearly 17,000 flights in a 10-day stretch around Christmas — wrecking holiday travel plans for well over 2 million people — when a winter storm shut down its operations in Denver and Chicago and the airline’s system for rescheduling pilots and flight attendants was overwhelmed.
Those cancellations cost the airline more than $1 billion and led to an ongoing Transportation Department investigation.
The airline’s unions have said they warned management about problems with the crew-scheduling system after a previous meltdown in October 2021.
CEO Robert Jordan has embarked on a campaign to repair the airline’s damaged reputation. Southwest said last month it would add deicing equipment and increase staffing during winter weather that is cold enough to limit the amount of time that ground workers can stay outside.
Southwest Airlines Co. was the biggest decliner among major airlines Monday, retreating more than 1 percent.
Review-Journal staff writer Richard N. Velotta contributed to this report.