DALLAS — After losing nearly 10% of its fleet to the Boeing 737 Max grounding and enduring a contentious clash with union mechanics to start 2019, few would have blamed Southwest Airlines if it had turned in a subpar year.
The Dallas-based air carrier didn’t let excuses get in the way.
In 2019, Southwest had one of its best statistical years in its history. It had its lowest complaint rate in four years, its best on-time performance percentage since 2016 and the lowest rate of mishandled baggage since 2004.
Passengers complained about Southwest Airlines to the federal government less than any other airline in 2019, even with 34 of its 737 Max parked in Victorville, Calif., and about 40 more at Boeing facilities.
“Prior to June, it was a tough go because of the Max coming out and we were rebooking thousands of customers,” said Steve Goldberg, Southwest’s senior vice president of operations and hospitality. “But we fought our way through the tough months.”
Fewer than 20% of Southwest’s flights in 2019 landed more than 15 minutes late. That was good for second-best among the country’s big four air carriers, trailing only Delta.
Southwest’s performance to finish the year is even more impressive if you consider how it started. Between January and June, Southwest landed just 77.58% of its flights on time and canceled 3.68% of all flights. For the last half of 2019, the on-time arrival rate improved to 82.88% and cancellations dropped to 2.4%.
Goldberg admitted that the airline wasn’t doing a good enough job to start 2019, but not without reason.
Just before Boeing’s 737 Max was grounded on March 13, 2019, Southwest Airlines sued the union representing its union mechanics and accused them of intentionally slowing down work in order to put pressure on management for a new contract.
Southwest’s situation almost mirrors what happened a few miles away at Fort Worth-based American Airlines, which lost 24 of its 737 Max planes to the grounding and sued the unions representing its mechanics in May over similar issues.
But operational problems dogged American later into 2019, with its on-time arrival rate dropping to 77.01%, it’s worst rate since 2014. However, American too noted improvement during the last few months of the year after winning a court order against the unions and after accepting that the 737 Max wasn’t coming back anytime soon.
Southwest managed to settle its clash with union mechanics in March by agreeing to a new contract with 20% raises, $160 million in back pay, 3% in annual raises and more flexibility to outsource maintenance work.
For all of 2019, 535 people filed complaints against Southwest Airlines with the Department of Transportation, compared to more than 2,500 at American.
Passengers only file complaints with federal regulators after they’ve exhausted their options with the airline, said Brett Snyder, an air travel blogger with CrankyFlier.com.
“Southwest’s reputation is better than statistics would show,” Snyder said. “Their customer relations team tends to be more flexible and more friendly and they do have certain policies that make it friendlier, such as no change fees and no fees for checked bags.”
Southwest still had the highest cancellation rate among the big four airlines, eliminating 2.47% of flights. That was worse than American’s 2.13% cancellation rate and far behind Delta, which canceled just 0.19% of flights.
But Southwest’s decentralized network also helps the airline recover from cancellations, Snyder said. Most large airlines operate a “hub and spoke” network so when there are weather problems or delays at a hub, it’s tough to put customers back on a path to their destination. Southwest can route customers through its “spiderweb” of airports, Snyder said.
Goldberg said Southwest has been working for years to improve some of its operational reliability challenges, including trying to streamline how it plans its routes. For example, Southwest dropped a flight from Dallas Love Field to Oklahoma City last summer. While it was a flight that was frequently full, the airline found that almost all of those passengers were connecting to another destination.
The airline also gave baggage handlers new handheld scanning devices that helped the airline load and balance planes more efficiently than the old paper and pencil method, Goldberg said. 2019 was the supposed to be the year that Southwest capitalized on those improvements.
“We had a campaign going into the year where we really want to focus on the little things,” Goldberg said.
When the 737 Max was grounded and Southwest canceled hundreds of flights a day, Goldberg said the airline tried to side with passengers.
“I think we engage our customers often when things don’t go right,” he said. “We want to be transparent, we want to own up when we make a mistake or its weather. We really pride ourselves in being advocates.”
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