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Southwest Airlines Meltdown: Takeaways for Electric Utilities

The Southwest Airlines crisis over the recent holiday season is an example of a once-in-a-decade incident that brought the airline’s services to a grinding halt. A similarly unexpected incident is bound to occur within the electric utility industry sometime in the next ten years. By observing these incidents in other industries, electric utilities can improve their response plans and be prepared for the unexpected.

It's important to note that preparing for a major disruptive incident goes beyond creating a response plan and training employees in that plan. It also requires key managers to build trust within their team. Trust and rapport within and across teams is vital for a successful collective response to crisis.

Let’s take a closer look at the Southwest Airlines incident. We’ll also explore some key takeaways that electric utilities can implement to be better prepared for once-a-decade crises in their own industry.

Southwest Airlines: A Manageable Crisis

Southwest Airlines melted down during the 2022 holidays, cancelling about 16,000 flights. The issue was not only due to severe winter weather, as Southwest first claimed. Another major factor was Southwest’s outdated scheduling and operations system, which was overloaded and failed over the holidays. The old system not only upset customers who couldn’t rebook flights; it also led to frustration and fatigue among airline staff, as scheduling changes and other important information had to be communicated to staff via phone call or word of mouth.

With flights cancelled across the country, crew members were unable to travel to work assignments, leading to further cancellations. Most travelers were also stranded without luggage. Southwest did not have a functional recovery plan for a complicated meltdown like this, and failed to stop the issue from cascading.

I had a personal experience with this fiasco: my wife and I were stuck at Baltimore/ Washington International Airport (BWI) on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2022. Despite never boarding our return flight, our luggage was kept from us at the airport. We were unable to book a flight home with Southwest and ended up spending an extra 5 days on the east coast without any luggage until the next available flight to Portland International Airport via Alaska Airlines on Thursday, December 29th. At the time of publishing this article, January 11, 2023, only one piece of luggage has been returned to us; the other is still enroute to our home.

Incident Recovery: Preparation and Flexibility are Key

Events like the Southwest Airlines incident happen once a decade or less. Similarly, unanticipated incidents occur within the electric utility industry once a decade or even once in a generation. Electric utilities must remember the major events that have created havoc for their own industry: the Three Mile Island partial meltdown in March of 1978; the Great Northeast Blackout in August 2003; the April 2013 Metcalf Substation attack; and more recent attacks on the grid in North Carolina.

Despite the rarity of such events, electric utilities must be prepared with contingency plans for a variety of potential disruptions. Because of the variable nature of potential incidents within the industry, electric utilities must not only have a response plan, but must also be flexible in their response. Southwest Airlines should have better prepared for the possibility of the “perfect storm” of severe weather and computer system outages so that the recent holiday fiasco could have been avoided. Utilities must also prepare for a perfect storm of multiple crises occurring simultaneously.

When challenges arise, it is vital that everyone act together, like a well-oiled machine. This can be achieved by training workers in incident recovery plans and, more importantly, fostering trust between managers and employees by making sure that workers feel recognized and valued in the workplace.

Response plans are specific to each utility and potential incident, so rather than outline ideal plans, let’s explore the ways that key managers can make their employees feel valued, ensuring that their team will work together during critical incident response times.

Responsibilities of Key Managers Before a Crisis

Key managers have a variety of responsibilities beyond their typical work duties when preparing for potential incidents. Of course, they need to understand their team’s responsibilities within the incident response plan. In addition, key managers should focus on building rapport with their employees and other working groups to create an atmosphere of trust within their teams.

Managers should provide their employees with clear directions and training, including the expectation that every employee is a valued contributor to the team. Key managers need to recognize the talent in their staff and encourage every worker to reach their full potential. By doing this, managers build a relationship of trust with their employees.

Before an incident occurs, key managers should establish lines of communication with other work groups so that their team can support other groups during incident recovery. Because they will also have built rapport with their employees as part of their daily workflow, managers will be confident that when an incident occurs, their team will work together towards a collective solution.

Build Trust with Employees, Maintain Trust with Customers

Southwest Airlines failed to maintain the trust of both their employees and their customers during their recent holiday meltdown. Electric utilities should strive to avoid such incidents so that they can maintain the trust of their customers even during a crisis.

Creating trust within teams is essential for incident response plans to succeed, especially during times of crisis. This will also lead to the continued reliability of the electric power grid, which in turn maintains customers’ confidence in electric utilities.

To learn more about Prescient’s ideas for the next generation electric power grid, which includes updates to electric utilities’ management best practices, contact us. We are happy to schedule a presentation or webinar on innovative management practices for electric utilities.

This article was written in collaboration with Prescient's Lead Editor Alyssa Sleva-Horine.

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