Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Southwest Airlines and Technical Debt

John Gruber:

From what I’ve gathered, Southwest’s problem this week is a combination of an outdated scheduling system and their generally high efficiency. They keep roughly 90 percent of their planes in service all day every day, but that means when something unexpected happens — like this past week’s weather across the country — the entire system is susceptible to falling apart. They now effectively need to “reboot”, and that might take an entire week. In normal times, Southwest is better than its competitors because they operate differently; now those differences have grounded most of their fleet. They cancelled a staggering 2,600 flights yesterday, 2,400 today, and 2,300 (and counting) for tomorrow. And keep in mind that part of Southwest’s efficiency is that their flights generally fly full — that adds up to over 300,000 stranded passengers per day this week.

Zeynep Tufekci (via Tina Fetner):

It’s been an open secret within Southwest for some time, and a shameful one, that the company desperately needed to modernize its scheduling systems. Software shortcomings contributed to previous, smaller-scale meltdowns, and Southwest unions had repeatedly warned about the software. Without more government regulation and oversight and greater accountability, we may see more fiascos like this one, which most likely stranded hundreds of thousands of Southwest passengers — perhaps more than a million — over Christmas week. And not just for a single company, as the problem is widespread across many industries.


Throughout the past year, the flight attendants’ union picketed in front of various airports as part of their contract negotiations. One protest sign the demonstrators carried? A placard declaring, “Another victim of SWA’s outdated technology,” with a graphic showing a stuck software progress bar. In September, they put the same sign lamenting the company’s outdated technology on the side of a truck and drove it in circles around Love Field (Southwest’s core airport) in Dallas, as well as the nearby Southwest headquarters. In March in an open letter to the company, the union even placed updating the creaking scheduling technology above its demands for increased pay.

Others have blamed Southwest’s point-to-point route system as being inherently fragile, although this is disputed.

When I talk about technical debt, many people point to the Y2K scare, which seems to offer a perfect example. […] Obviously, that wasn’t going to work in the new millennium, when confusions between 1905 and 2005 could have caused programs to glitch or crash on an epic scale.

But that didn’t happen, and some people may believe that the implication is that technical debt is not a big deal. But the reason we made it through Y2K intact is that we didn’t ignore the problem. The U.S. government and businesses spent a staggering $100 billion to fix the underlying problem in a massive, multiyear effort.


For example, after the 2017 Equifax breach, which exposed sensitive information from 143 million Americans because the company failed to institute a routine security update to its software, it agreed to pay a penalty of at least $575 million to the Federal Trade Commission. That may sound like a lot, but it was just a few dollars per affected customer and a mere 15 percent of the company’s revenue in 2018, the year after the hack.

Indeed, I ended up with about $5 from Equifax, which is typical, instead of the predicted $125.


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After seeing the airline industry implode over the past 3 years, I stopped traveling during holidays. It’s just not worth the hassle or the risk of flights being canceled.

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