Big Changes Coming at Southwest

These are exciting days at Southwest Airlines. Southwest is slowly absorbing former AirTran airports, aircraft, and people. New construction projects are changing the look of our home airport (Dallas Love) and our headquarters. And we are preparing to begin flights outside the continental U.S. Here are a few of the highlights:

AirTran Integration

The process of combining our two airlines will last through 2015, but we’ve already made significant progress. We have taken over AirTran’s operations in Seattle, Canton/Akron, Des Moines, and Dayton, and we take over its Key West service this coming Sunday. We’ve converted at least 10 AirTran 737s into Southwest configuration and paint scheme along with crews to work them. Coming this spring, we will take over AirTran’s service to Branson, Wichita, Charlotte, Flint, Rochester, and Portland, ME. Significantly for me, the AirTran dispatch office will move from Orlando to our headquarters building in June, although technically we will remain two separate groups for 2-3 more years with the AirTran dispatchers gradually converting to Southwest as we convert more planes and flights. Three of them are already in training to “jump the fence” and join our office. Plus we will finally start code sharing with AirTran next year, meaning you can buy a ticket from a Southwest airport to an AirTran-only airport to give you more options.

Going Farther

We just received approval from the FAA to operate flights outside the continental U.S. for the first time in our history, a huge milestone that will give us numerous new SWA destinations in the coming years. Yesterday we announced our first such destination: San Juan, Puerto Rico. Service begins in April from Orlando and Tampa, with more airports to follow. We are VERY excited about these new opportunities! Puerto Rico is particularly interesting because it’s a prime starting port for amazing cruises to the Southern Caribbean. I am hopeful that we’ll add a Houston-San Juan nonstop to make it easy for us Dallasites to get there. Eventually we will take over all of AirTran’s international operations including flights to Cancun, Mexico City, Nassau, Punta Cana, Cabo San Lucas, Montego Bay, and Bermuda. Plus I’m sure that eventually we will add some new destinations of our own. (aloha, y’all!)

Changes in Dallas

First of all, as you might already know, the City of Dallas and Southwest are working together to build a beautiful new terminal at Love Field. Twelve of the gates are scheduled to open in April 2013 along with many of the new concessions. The remaining eight gates will open later. If you’re at Love anytime soon, look out the windows to see the new terminal.

Second, the main restrictions of the Wright Amendment will expire in October 2014, now less than two years away! At that time, we will be able to fly nonstop from Love to pretty much any airport we want within the continental U.S. (still no international flights), providing our Customers (and Employees!) a wealth of new flight options. I’m hoping for nonstops to Orlando, Vegas, Seattle, Chicago, Denver, Baltimore, Atlanta…but it’s not up to me.

Finally, construction has begun on a new building at SWA headquarters that will house our 24/7 workgroups, including Dispatch. It will be a hardened facility to keep us safe during severe weather, and it will provide plenty of space and a new design to help us operate as safely and effectively as possible both now and far into the future. I can’t wait to see our new home when it opens late next year or early 2014.

I’ve worked at Southwest for over 11 years now. I still love it here, and I am grateful to be a small part of this great company.

Disclaimer: I am not an official Southwest spokesperson, and all opinions expressed on this website are solely my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Southwest Airlines, its Board of Directors, or other Employees.

Blog Stew 9/27/2012

Hmm…Blog Stew…I think I’ll make that a new category for my random thought posts. Sounds tasty! Blog stew is great for those days when I don’t have the idea, time, or motivation to write a long, thoughtful post on a specific topic. Those do take a lot of work, and no matter the topic, it’s sure to only interest some of you. It’s much easier to throw a bunch of different things together in the old Crock Pot and let it simmer. I hope you will find a few interesting morsels.

  • Don’t get too excited yet since we haven’t played any big-time schools, but so far the nation’s top college quarterback in total offense per game attends a little school in Waco, Texas. Sic ’em, Nick Florence!
  • Today will be my final long run (13.1 miles) before the 25k in Tyler on October 13. This will only be the second time in my life I’ve ever attempted this distance, the other being the Cowtown half marathon back in February. But my legs feel great, and I’m excited to get out there this afternoon. Next week I’ll taper, or cut back on mileage to rest up for the race.
  • You Obama-haters can rejoice…briefly. I’m strongly leaning toward going Green with Dr. Jill Stein. I like many things about Obama and will be happy if he wins in November, but he’s also done some things I don’t like and broken some important promises (not closing Guantanamo Bay, not punishing the business execs who nearly destroyed our economy, keeping troops in Afghanistan when victory is impossible, etc.). I don’t agree with Stein on everything, but she and the Green Party seem to have the platform that the Democrats don’t have the guts to pursue, largely because the Greens don’t have corporate sponsors. Unfortunately, that also means they have very little chance of winning anything, much less the Presidency. Romney will carry Texas regardless of how I vote, and Obama will probably get reelected regardless of how I vote, so maybe I’ll just use my ballot to dream big.
  • The pilot-management standoff at American is interesting but sad to watch. I read a comment from one AA pilot that the slowdown isn’t exactly an organized, concerted effort to destroy the operation. It’s more a matter of being extra careful to protect their jobs. Until the judge tossed out their contract a couple of weeks ago, that contract backed them up in the event of an small deviation from the hundreds of company procedures they have to follow when flying the plane. The company can now fire them at will for any mistake they make. I’d be a little more careful, too. Is the pilot’s statement true? I’m not sure, but it made some sense to me. However, with so much anger over there, I’m sure that some of them don’t mind making their employer look bad. I hope both sides can work out a deal soon. And I’m still very grateful to work where I work.
  • You know my son Brenden doesn’t feel well when you have to drag him out of bed in the morning. He is definitely a morning person.
  • Jenny has been accepted at UTA and will start classes there in January. She did awesome on her nursing school entrance test as expected. The only question now is when she’ll be able to take her remaining UTA-specific nursing prerequisites. She meets with a nursing advisor next week who should be able to help.
  • I know it was unnecessary and expensive and irresponsible and all that, but my iPad is awesome. I use it more than my phone or laptop. Blogging on it is a bit more difficult compared to a laptop or desktop since it doesn’t have a separate keyboard or mouse, but it’s easier to carry around than the laptop and has a 4G Internet connection.

Thank you, come again.

Two Views of Weather

In everyday life, weather determines how comfortable you feel outside and what outdoor activities you might choose. It guides choices like what clothes to wear, whether to wash your car or run the sprinkler system, and whether to take the kids to the park or keep them home with a craft or movie. We get the weather report on TV or the radio to plan our days and weekend activities. Unless an unusual weather event is occurring, such as a hurricane threatening Florida or a crippling blizzard in Denver that makes national news, we don’t really care much about what the weather is doing outside our vicinity.

Flight dispatchers look at weather in a different way from the majority of people. We work in a climate-controlled office while analyzing weather we’ll never see in areas hundreds or even thousands of miles away. We don’t care how the weather makes anyone feel, and it doesn’t really affect our own activities within the office. However, it makes a huge difference in how we plan our flights, but maybe not quite in the way you’d expect.

Good and Bad Weather

Regular people and dispatchers have different definitions of good and bad weather. What’s good for one might not be good for the other.

For Joe Blow:

  • Good weather probably involves a pleasant temperature and a lack of precipitation so he can feel comfortable outside.
  • Bad weather keeps Joe inside and might involve extreme temperatures, high winds, or precipitation.

For a flight dispatcher:

  • Good weather is any weather that allows us to operate a flight as intended – safely, legally, and on time.
  • Bad weather is any weather that might prevent us from operating a flight as intended, such as thick fog, low clouds, thunderstorms, or freezing rain that ices up runways and aircraft. It also forces us to carry lots of extra fuel for holding and possible diversions, forces us to divert at times, and/or prevents us from departing at all.
  • Weather that is unpleasant to people such as rain, hot or cold temperatures, or strong winds don’t necessarily prevent a flight from operating safely. As one of my trainers said once, our planes work fine in the rain.

So we can sum up the two views of weather as such:

  • Normal View: Do I want to be outside?
  • Aviator View: Can my flight reach its destination as planned?

The Rules

The FAA and airline policy forces us, generally with good reason, to follow a cornucopia of rules when we carry paying passengers on a flight. One rule says that we cannot land a plane if the visibility or lowest cloud layer (ceiling) is beyond a specified threshold for the runway we want to use. These values are known as minimums (or minima, if you want to use proper Latin…and I KNOW you do). Normal people don’t usually care about ceilings and visibility because it doesn’t affect them. A 100 foot ceiling might be perfect for a cool walk in the park but a showstopper for a pilot trying to land at an airport.

One common limitation for a good runway is visibility of 1/2 mile and a ceiling of 200 feet. If the visibility is at least 1/2 mile, the crew can line up and descend toward the runway to land. If it’s lower than 1/2 mile, the crew must hold until it improves or divert. Once the crew descends toward the runway to land, the pilots must see the runway at least 200 feet above the ground as they descend. If they do, they can land. If not, they must climb out, go around, and try again or divert.

Buffer Zone

Predicting the future in any field is a mix of art and science, and no one bats 1.000 in any field of prediction. The Feds and every aviator in the world know this. So the Feds added another rule to offset the inherent limitations in a forecast: the alternate rule. It specifies a buffer above the typical minimums and requires us to designate an alternate airport if the forecast weather is anywhere within that buffer zone or below. For most operators, the threshold is 2000 foot ceiling (10 times the minimum ceiling for a good runway) and 3 miles visibility (6 times the minimum visibility). If the weather is below those limits, we must name an alternate airport and carry enough extra fuel to divert there if needed. That way if the weather gets worse than forecast and prevents the flight from landing, we have somewhere to go. We spend much of our brainpower evaluating forecasts, watching trends in visibility and ceiling along with precipitation, and deciding whether an alternate or extra fuel is required or simply a good idea. (I might explore this idea in more depth in a later post.)

So which view of weather is correct? Both, of course. Joe Blow doesn’t have to care that San Diego is fogged in and below mins because he can still run on the beach with his dog. Meanwhile, I don’t have to care that Betty Boop’s picnic in Houston got rained out because my HOU arrivals are plowing through the rain with no problem. Each view is valid for its own purposes.

Southwest-AirTran Dispatcher Seniority Update

Last week an arbitrator issued his ruling on the Southwest-AirTran dispatcher seniority list integration (SLI) case. He sided with our union and awarded us four extra years of seniority when we merge our seniority lists. This decision has implications for most dispatchers at each company, some good and some bad. For those who are interested, here are some details.


The SWA dispatcher seniority list, counting all specialty positions and managers, has about 200 people, compared to about 45 for AirTran. Ideally, the two unions would negotiate an SLI agreement instead of going to arbitration. The SWA and AirTran pilots already did so successfully. If I understand correctly (I wasn’t involved), since both unions are under the Transportation Workers Union (TWU) umbrella, the AirTran union thought the only acceptable way to integrate the seniority lists per TWU bylaws was by date-of-hire into the dispatch office. In other words, if you were hired at AirTran before I was hired at Southwest, you’re senior to me. Our union countered that the AirTran dispatchers would be getting a much better contract (higher pay, better benefits, etc.) and more opportunity at a larger company, and the SWA folks should get something from the merger as well. Otherwise, it would be a huge windfall for AirTran with zero direct benefit to SWA. We tried to negotiate, but the AirTran union immediately filed for binding arbitration, thinking they had a strong case based on TWU documentation. Thus the decision fell to the arbitrator. At the hearing in February, AirTran proposed date-of-hire, and SWA proposed adding four years to all SWA dispatchers’ seniority. He decided the latter was the fairer outcome.

Impact for Me

Compared to using date-of-hire, the arbitrator’s decision bumped me above six AirTran dispatchers. Now twelve of them will come in above me instead of eighteen. That’s certainly nice, but on a combined list of 200 working dispatchers, those six spots won’t make a huge difference to me right now. However, the overall impact of merging with AirTran does make a significant difference as the majority of AirTran dispatchers will come in below me on the list.

Right now, I’m at the 65th percentile among SWA dispatchers. When we bid for our schedules each summer, I can have any start time except the morning shifts, which go to the top half of the list. If all the AirTran dispatchers make the move (more on that later), and no one retires from Southwest before the merger is complete, I’ll be in the 56th percentile. So overall the merger bumps me up by about ten percent. This will make it a bit easier to get overtime and give me slightly better pick of vacation days, but for now that’s about it.

Impact for Coworkers

The integration plan will have a much bigger impact on my coworkers, especially the junior people and my new friends at AirTran. As you’ve surely figured out already, the four-year boost for our side is a huge help to the junior SWA dispatchers. Except for the group we hired last summer, all of them move up by 10-15 percent. Perhaps most significantly, about 17 of them move off reserve status, which means they can finally have a consistent, predictable schedule with a set rotation of days on and days off and a fixed start time. Reserves don’t know their schedules until about three months out and might work a combination of days, afternoons, and midnights with days off scattered throughout the month. Their schedules get especially messy and busy during the summer and around holidays. It’s a good day when you finally climb high enough in the list to get off reserve.

Unfortunately, what’s good for the SWA people is bad for the AirTran people. The majority of the AirTran dispatchers will be on reserve status. Some were off reserve status at AirTran but will get stuck with it again once they come over to Dallas. Also, because they’ll be less senior overall, they’re more likely to get afternoons and/or midnights, which might be very difficult if they’ve been on day shift at AirTran and have a family situation that requires day shift to work well. Since they’re already being forced to uproot their lives in Orlando and move halfway across the country, the seniority snub is extra salt in the wound. A few had decided to leave AirTran before the SLI decision for various reasons. It’s possible that others might decide not to make the move. I feel badly for them. They didn’t ask for their company to be bought. Now they must choose between moving to Dallas with a loss of seniority or starting over somewhere else.

Let me be very clear that I am excited about the merger for a variety of reasons. In addition to the benefits to Southwest as a company (Atlanta, international ops, more airplanes, etc.), every AirTran dispatcher I’ve encountered has been a pleasure – bright, hardworking, personable, and great to work with. If all of their dispatchers are like the ones I’ve met, they will be a tremendous asset to our company, and I look forward to meeting more of them toward the end of this year or sometime next year when they start to come over.

Why is My Flight Late?!?

One day as a teenager, my dad and I were trying to fly home from Calgary after a ski trip. Our flight was delayed, and I didn’t understand why. Dad asked the gate agent, who said that our aircraft was delayed somewhere else and was arriving late into Calgary. As silly as it might seem, that was a big epiphany for me. Apparently, planes didn’t magically appear at our gate for us to board at the scheduled departure time. Hmm.

Now that I actually work for an airline and see the other side of delays, I thought some of you might have the same question: why is my flight late?

Think of an airline as a really big, really expensive bus system. A bus starts the day at one location and goes from place to place for the rest of the day, picking up and dropping off passengers at each stop. Any number of things can go wrong along the way to throw off the schedule – traffic, passenger issues, bad weather, mechanical problems, you name it. An airline works the same way except with many more rules, many more people involved, and many more details to work out. And if one flight is late, all the remaining flights that day for that aircraft are likely to be late as well.

If a flight is late, sometimes the cause is easy to pinpoint. Perhaps an engine won’t start. Perhaps there’s a huge thunderstorm over the airport. Perhaps some yahoo called in a fake bomb threat that the authorities must investigate. But sometimes the cause isn’t so easy to identify. Here are some examples of less obvious causes for a flight delay:

ATC – Air traffic controllers are high-tech traffic cops whose jobs is to ensure that the aircraft don’t fly too closely together. Due to FAA-mandated safety rules and operational considerations, each airport can safely handle only a certain number of airplanes per hour based on the runways in use, weather, and available navigational equipment. A smaller airport like Houston Hobby or Chicago Midway might be able to land 20-30 flights per hour. A huge, well-designed airport like Denver or DFW can handle over 100 arrivals per hour under normal conditions.

Problems occur when the airlines schedule more flights to land somewhere than the airport can accept during a given time. This happens daily for short periods in some airports such as Philadelphia and New York’s LaGuardia and Newark. If demand exceeds capacity for only a short time, air traffic controllers might force some inbound flights to fly in a circle once or twice, a maneuver known as holding. Each “donut” might take 5-10 minutes. If demand is expected to exceed capacity for a longer period of time, perhaps due to bad weather or a runway closure that reduces the amount of traffic an airport can handle, ATC starts delaying flights on the ground at their departure airports. This leads to late flights, frustrated and confused passengers, and lots of phone calls to Dispatch.

This graphic shows traffic in Philadelphia. The horizontal white line shows how many aircraft the airport can handle every 15 minutes. The green bars show the number of aircraft scheduled to arrive. From 1315-1345z, the airport is way overloaded, and many of those flights will spin a bit. That’s why we dispatchers plan extra fuel for PHL flights that arrive during that time.

Weather – Yes, weather in general might be clear as a cause of delays, but what specific aspects of weather actually cause problems? Thunderstorms are a highly visible example. Obviously, it’s not safe to take off or land in a severe thunderstorm. They can also cause problems if a line of storms lies between the two airports. Our planes can fly over a less severe storm, but some thunderstorms can reach 40,000, 50,000, or even 60,000 feet, too high for us to fly over them. In those cases, we must fly around them, which could add hundreds of miles and 30-60 minutes or more to the flight.

Fog is another problem. The FAA issues rules, known an minimums (or minima, if you want to be more grammatically correct), that tell us two important restrictions for when we can land:

  1. The minimum visibility needed to approach the runway
  2. How low the pilots can descend before seeing the runway just before they land

For a good runway, we might need 1/2 mile visibility and 200 foot “decision height”, meaning the bottom of the cloud layer must be 200 feet or higher to allow the pilots to see the runway and decide whether to land or not. If we don’t have enough visibility or high enough clouds, we can’t land, meaning we hold or divert. In order for a flight to depart, we must have reason to believe that the weather will be good enough to land when we get there. Part of the dispatcher’s job is to monitor the current and forecasted weather and ensure that they are good enough to launch the flight. If not, we have to throw the flag and tell the pilots not to leave yet. As you’ve probably guessed, that generates some phone calls to our office as well.

Wind can also play a role. When an airline builds a schedule, the planners estimate how long each flight will take based on the expected route, the airports involved, and historical data on flight time and winds. The upper-level winds where our airplanes fly generally blow from west to east and tend to be stronger in the winter. However, the winds are a little different each day. An unusually strong tailwind helps a flight arrive earlier than scheduled, sometimes 30-45 minutes early. Conversely, an unusually strong headwind can delay the flight by the same amount of time. Dispatchers try to plan our longer flights with more favorable winds, but on some days, there’s just not a viable way to make a flight reach its destination on-time.

Maintenance – If the engine won’t start, that’s a pretty obvious mechanical problem. But not every broken part must automatically delay the flight. Some parts, such as a broken tray table or busted lavatory, don’t inhibit the safe operation of the flight. Other parts are only necessary for certain flights, such as the onboard weather radar for a flight that could encounter thunderstorms or ice removal equipment for a flight into a snowstorm. If something breaks on an aircraft, the captain, dispatcher, and mechanic must decide whether the flight can proceed as planned or whether the part must be fixed prior to departure. Sometimes it can take a while to figure out the best course of action or to actually fix the busted item. We want to operate safely and legally above all, which sometimes means delaying or canceling the flight.

Passenger Issues – Connections generally tend to increase delays. A late inbound flight might have passengers connecting to several other flights. Customer-friendly airlines like Southwest try to hold those departures to ensure the connecting passengers make it on, especially if the delay isn’t too long or it’s the last flight of the day for that market. Sometimes, especially for an airline like Southwest that handles LOTS AND LOTS OF BAGS, it can take extra time to get all the bags on and off, particularly for connecting passengers whose bags need to be retrieved from one plane and transferred to another.

TSA – On rare occasions, the TSA detects a possible security breach and requires all passengers in a terminal to be rescreened. Other times the TSA security line is running extra slow, and many passengers are unable to reach their gates on-time as a result. The airline might delay flights for any of these reasons.

Delays can occur for other reasons such as human error or computer problems, but the causes above are responsible for the vast majority of flight delays. Delays tend to compound over time, so as a general rule, your flight is more likely to be delayed at the end of the day versus the morning. Our office has a special group of people who try to reduce delays by reassigning aircraft from one flight to another, a mixture of art and science known as “swapping”. Our pilots and airport employees also work to mitigate delays where they can by working faster and smarter, focusing on problem flights, asking for shortcuts in the air, and making up time on the ground.

I hope this helps clarify things a bit. If you have any questions, post them in the comments. I love talking about this stuff. =)

Disclaimer: Although I work for Southwest Airlines, all opinions expressed on this website are solely my own and do not necessarily represent those of my employer, its leaders, or its board of directors. Yes, they make me say this. 🙂

Hello, Atlanta!

Today Southwest starts service to Atlanta, the busiest airport in the world. Until now, it’s been a huge hole in our network, particularly for business travelers. But starting today, we’re offering nonstop service between Atlanta and Austin, Baltimore, Chicago Midway, Denver, and Houston Hobby, plus same-plane or connecting service to many of our other airports. For now, we will coexist with our subsidiary AirTran, which offers around 200 daily departures to dozens of cities from Atlanta, compared to 15 daily departures for Southwest. Next month, we will add Atlanta service to/from Las Vegas and Phoenix. In June, we’re adding Los Angeles. Over the next couple of years, we will gradually convert all AirTran aircraft and Employees into Southwest aircraft and Employees, so the percentage of SWA-branded flights at Atlanta will grow over time. Here’s a handy fact sheet about the merger.

My Dallas-Fort Worth readers have a same-plane option for four different flights each day between Dallas Love and Atlanta, two each through Austin and Houston. Next month I need to log some time in the cockpit jumpseat to stay current for work, so I plan to head to Atlanta and back with a dinner stop there to check out the airport. I’ve never been to Atlanta and look forward to seeing the king of airport traffic. Someday I want to actually visit the city with Jenny and the boys to see the famous Georgia Aquarium, the Coke museum, and the other highlights of the city. Until then, I’ll just enjoy my layover and maybe meet some of my new AirTran coworkers.

Note: Although I work for Southwest, all thoughts on this website are solely my own and do no necessarily represent those of Southwest Airlines, its Board of Directors and Leaders, or its shareholders.