Southwest Airlines hit with record-breaking penalty for 2022 IT meltdown

Southwest Airlines passengers queue at baggage check-in at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023, in Houston
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Southwest Airlines has been handed a record-breaking fine roughly 30 times larger than any levelled against a US airline for a disastrous IT blunder. 

The US Department of Transport issued the $140 million fine for IT failures in December 2022 that saw thousands of flights cancelled and millions of travelers left stranded across the country.

The bulk of the fine will go towards a compensation system to protect future Southwest Airlines passengers in the event of delays. The remaining fine, about $35 million, will go directly to the US treasury.

The fine “sets a new precedent and sends a clear message”, according to US transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg.

“Taking care of passengers is not just the right thing to do — it's required, and this penalty should put all airlines on notice to take every step possible to ensure that a meltdown like this never happens again,” he said.

“If airlines fail their passengers, we will use the full extent of our authority to hold them accountable.”

Southwest Airlines IT meltdown: What happened?

An investigation in the wake of the incident found outdated IT infrastructure was at fault for a systems failure that prompted the carnage. 

Chief among the failures highlighted was an issue with SkySolver, which the airline was reliant on for its crew reassignment in the event of flight disruptions.

According to Southwest executives at the time, SkySolver was overwhelmed by the scale of weather-induced tasks and broke down, forcing schedulers to sort through records manually and severely disrupting operations.

Southwest also faced a more entrenched problem at the hands of their approach to flight scheduling.


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Where most airlines operate a 'hub-and-spoke' model in which planes travel from their base hub to a variety of destinations, Southwest operated a point-to-point model.

While the former allows an airline to streamline in the event of severe weather conditions, the latter leaves an airline vulnerable in “ways that other airlines are not”, travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt told ABC News at the time.

Combined, these shortcomings helped create delay on top of delay, resulting in the eventual cancellation of around 16,900 flights.

George Fitzmaurice
Staff Writer

George Fitzmaurice is a staff writer at ITPro, ChannelPro, and CloudPro, with a particular interest in AI regulation, data legislation, and market development. After graduating from the University of Oxford with a degree in English Language and Literature, he undertook an internship at the New Statesman before starting at ITPro. Outside of the office, George is both an aspiring musician and an avid reader.