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A look inside Southwest Airlines’ Network Operations Center

In this article:
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Southwest Airlines provided Yahoo Finance's Adam Shapiro a look inside the network operations center with Steve West Southwest Airlines Network Operations Center Senior Director.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

- Welcome back to "Yahoo Finance Live." Airline stocks are trading higher today, no secret there. People are traveling for the holidays. And just to give you the numbers, yesterday on Sunday, 2.2 million people went through TSA checkpoints at the nation's airports. In 2019, it was 2.3 million people. So we are essentially back to 2019 travel levels.

We even had Delta Airlines say that they are exceeding 2019 leisure demand. So we had the opportunity to go inside Southwest Airlines. They're the biggest domestic carrier. Their network operations control center. Now, what happens here are the people who are directing the thousands of flights, more than 3,600 a day at Southwest, plus the thousands of people who fly the planes, who service the planes, the entire operation. And if you notice, there's a blue light. It's a blue light to keep everybody calm. Here's our discussion with Steve West.

STEVE WEST: We have, basically, four networks that we manage. And then we manage our customer network with flight schedules. And then we manage our crew network, which is pilots and flight attendants. And then we get into the airports stations, followed up by technical operations, also known as maintenance. So those are the four areas that we just manage. And they have to do those in harmony, and that all takes place right here.

- And this is 24 hours?

STEVE WEST: 24/7, 365.

- A hypothetical situation. You've got a flight that's going to leave Chicago Midway. And let's say it's going to a direct route. Is there a Chicago Midway to-- I have to believe there's a Florida destination.

STEVE WEST: Oh yes.

- The meteorologist-- they have meteorologists back there, tell you we got a snow problem in Chicago Midway. What happens?

STEVE WEST: So they do that way ahead of time. So it is not a surprise to us, unless it's a freak type of lake effect snow. But a bigger snowstorm, we're going to know in advance. So the meteorology team perhaps our group and we sit in this room right here and we talk about it and put together a operational plan. Do we need to scale back the operation or don't we?

And if we do, then we provide that 24 to 36 hour notice to our customers. That allows our crew people to get all their crew members in line and it allows our maintenance team to reset their maintenance requirements.

- When we get on a Southwest flight, how many hundreds or thousands of people are actually in the background? I'm not talking about the pilots or the flight attendants, but the entire network.

STEVE WEST: So, the entire network. Are you talking about ground ops? I mean, we're talking thousands. We're talking 15,000, 20,000 ground ops employees that we're having to work with. So, from the operational perspective, we're probably talking about at least 30,000, 40,000 employees.

- Is there ever a day, because I had referenced the blue lights to keep people calm, that it's just smooth, or is there always the unexpected?

STEVE WEST: Well, we're prepared for the unexpected. But there are days that it runs really smooth. And those are the days you never want to be caught, basically, just taking a pause. But there are days that are very smooth. And the way our network is, if it runs like designed, it runs fantastic.

- When things don't go wrong, I imagine someone's on the phone to you. Would that be Mr Kelly or is it someone--

STEVE WEST: No, it wouldn't be Mr Kelly. But it does trickle where our senior leaders are really, really involved. And our job is as it trickles up, then we keep them informed. And it really gets in-- we have our systems that allow that to happen. So if there's a small event that goes on, I'm notified through a text messaging. And then we do have leaders on the floor who elevate these type of situations. And then if we need to make it bigger where Gary and the senior leaders get involved we have process to do just that.

- When you think about all the people who are in this-- I mean, this is happening as we're talking right now, 3,600 flights today, all of these thousands of people who are behind the scenes getting everyone else who's getting on a plane going somewhere at Southwest. They're also in touch, I would imagine, are they in touch with air traffic control and with the FAA at the same time?

STEVE WEST: Yeah. So definitely our pilots are up there, but we do have a division here with our air traffic control specialists. They are talking to our centers, they're talking to Washington and the command centers, they're talking to towers as needed. Same with the dispatchers, they're doing the same thing. But we do have a specialized group who manages just our airspace and anything to do with aircraft movement for ATC.

- The people are going to be watching this who are getting ready to get on a flight to maybe go visit family for Thanksgiving or take the family on vacation after what we've all experienced in the last two years to Disney or wherever it is. What would you say to them about what's happening back there to make sure they get there on time?

STEVE WEST: I would say that you can expect a very great product. We operate within a operational philosophy that we're going to be safe, we're going to be low cost, we're going to be reliable, but also mostly hospitality. So with all four, those customers can depend on what product that we deliver.

- I got to ask you this. I promise after this month, we won't be going here again. But when you have days like what happened a couple of weeks ago, do you just want to pull your hair out?

STEVE WEST: Yeah, that was rough. But we are built to withstand that. So when we run into those type of situations, we know that there was an end to that. And the way our network is designed, we just knew it's going to be difficult for a couple of days, and then it will smooth out. And a lot of reason for that is because the way our network design is. It takes about three days to recover from those, and primarily because our aircrafts leave these maintenance facilities every day, but a third of them are parked overnight.

Our crew network is managed in a three day kind of trip sequence. So every time that we get into these, it takes about three days to get our crew network really healthy. But yeah, it is frustrating. It's frustrating for the customers. But we try to make as least impactful as possible.

- Those of us who are flying, customers don't realize too that there are things beyond an airline's control, such as a crew can only work so many hours at which point the FAA says got to switch out the crew. But if weather in another area has kept a crew from getting to where you are, you get the slowdown?

STEVE WEST: Exactly. And that's really what perpetual waded through the entire event is through that, the crews were not in the right location. And try to reposition them in that location, it's a little bit more difficult, particularly if you don't have the market depth, like we cut back a little bit. That's a little bit more difficult. It takes a little bit more time to reset.

- OK, my last question, because I don't think many of us would choose a job that promises stress where you'd have to have blue lights on a regular basis. But what keeps you here? What do you love about it?

STEVE WEST: I've been here a long time, but it's almost exciting every day. But every day there's something new. But this place is nothing like I've ever seen, Southwest is fantastic. Everything I have is because of this place. But I think everybody out here feels that same way. They're passionate about what they do. And when things don't go right, they take that personally. And they want to make sure that we do our very best.