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It's been a year since Southwest's epic meltdown. What's changed?


The holidays are approaching, and for many people, that means hopping on a plane to visit family or friends. Last December, an estimated 2 million Southwest Airlines customers were stranded after a blizzard led to technical problems at the airline. Now Southwest says it's better prepared to handle severe weather. NPR's Joe Hernandez reports.

JOE HERNANDEZ, BYLINE: Last Christmas Eve, Emily Cornelius was on her way back to Denver after visiting family when she landed in Chicago for a layover and her flight got canceled. She spent the night with a friend, rebooked for a couple days later - then that flight got canceled, too. By then, Southwest Airlines was in the midst of a major holiday meltdown. Baggage claims overflowed, customer service lines clogged up and many would-be flyers were left stuck in the airport.

EMILY CORNELIUS: We either felt trapped in the airport, or we were spending money that we don't know if we're going to get back on options to be outside of the airport.

HERNANDEZ: Cornelius ultimately took a Greyhound bus back to Denver, getting there five days after she was originally scheduled to be home. Southwest Airlines ended up canceling more than 16,000 flights over a 10-day period last December. A major blizzard snarled travel across the U.S. But as other airlines recovered, Southwest suffered a series of technical setbacks that led to a wave of delays and cancellations. With Thanksgiving and the December holidays fast approaching, the company now says it's ready for the year-end rush. Here's Southwest Airlines chief operating officer Andrew Watterson talking about the December chaos on a recent earnings call.


ANDREW WATTERSON: It weighs heavily on all of us here at Southwest Airlines. We have a lot of pride based on our 50-plus year history. So preparing to prevent something like that from happening again was and is an imperative.

HERNANDEZ: To better prepare for ice and snow, Southwest bought new de-icing trucks and other equipment and increased staff at airports in colder climates. The airline said it also updated its crew scheduling systems after workers who were manually modifying schedules last December got overwhelmed by the flood of cancellations.

CLINT HENDERSON: They are making a lot of moves to try to get ahead of this for Christmas.

HERNANDEZ: That's Clint Henderson, managing editor of the travel website The Points Guy.

HENDERSON: I'm just not sure everything's going to be in place if there's a big meltdown like there was last year.

HERNANDEZ: Still, customers appear ready to fly with Southwest again. The airline says it has a higher percentage of seats booked for this December's holiday period than it did last year. Henderson says many travelers won't hold a grudge against an airline, even if they say otherwise.

HENDERSON: Consumers are really price-conscious more than they are sort of looking away from an airline over issues that they've had in the past.

HERNANDEZ: If you are flying for the holidays, Henderson says, there are a few things you can do ahead of time to ensure you have a smoother trip. Download your airline's app to your smartphone. It might make rebooking easier. You should also check the weather forecast, Henderson says, and have a backup plan just in case you get stranded. Joe Hernandez, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLYING LOTUS' "FF4") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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