Southwest Airlines and its debacle of canceled flights around the Christmas holiday is another example of the extreme capitalism that U.S. policies have allowed to flourish. These policies of deregulation, a lack of support for workers and unions, and failure to enforce antitrust laws have allowed profits and returns to shareholders to trump all other goals and responsibilities of businesses.
(Note: If you find my posts too much to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making.)
Southwest Airlines canceled over 17,000 flights in the couple of weeks around the Christmas holiday. It canceled far more flights than any other airline; some days it was responsible for 90% of the flights canceled in the U.S. On some days it canceled two-thirds of its flights while other airlines were canceling 2% or fewer of their flights. Although the weather contributed to triggering the cancellations, other airlines coped much, much better with the weather conditions. 
The dramatic extent of Southwest’s cancellations was caused, not bad by weather, but by extreme capitalism that has pushed its workforce to the limit and failed to invest in needed infrastructure, while maximizing profits and returns to shareholders. Southwest’s management admitted that the cancellations were primarily due to the failure of internal systems and technology, particularly its personnel scheduling system. Its unions have been highlighting the need for an improved personnel scheduling system for years.
Workers had been complaining about their treatment even before the December meltdown – 16-hour days, mandatory overtime, and a requirement for a doctor’s letter to take a sick day – driven by very thin staffing levels, driven in turn by the push to maximize profits. Things only got worse with December’s problems. Some of Southwest’s unions are talking about going on strike, with much of the focus on working conditions.
Southwest is not a corporation that has been struggling to survive; rather it’s one that’s very profitable. It’s had profits of $5.9 billion and $5.4 billion in 2022 and 2021, respectively, while revenue has grown from $9 billion in 2020 to $15.8 billion in 2021 and $22.7 billion in 2022. It received $7 billion in pandemic relief funds from the federal government, but nonetheless laid off 7,800 workers between March 2020 and July 2021. Its CEO was paid $9 million in 2022 and it spent $2 million on lobbying in 2021 – 2022.
Furthermore, from 2017 through 2019, Southwest spent $5.6 billion of its profits on buying back its own stock and then another $451 million on buybacks in the first quarter of 2020 (as the pandemic was hitting). Using its profits for stock buybacks enriched shareholders and executives, when it could have invested them in workers or needed infrastructure and technology instead.  Furthermore, in December 2022, Southwest resumed paying $428 million a year in dividends to shareholders. (Dividends were suspended in the first quarter of 2020 when the pandemic hit). Clearly, Southwest could afford to invest in infrastructure improvements and to treat its employees reasonably.
Despite its horrible performance in December, in January 2023, Southwest announced the promotions of five executives, including the person in charge of network operations. While customers suffered, it seems there’s no accountability for executives. 
So far, the federal Department of Transportation has not imposed any penalties for Southwest’s December meltdown. Members of Congress, union representatives, and consumer advocates are all calling for an investigation of what happened, of delayed refunds to customers, and of possible deceptive business practices (such as letting customers book flights when Southwest knew if didn’t have the personnel to operate the flights, which at least three airlines are being investigated for doing).
Better government oversight of the whole airline industry is needed, including stronger rules for consumer protection, as well as better enforcement of existing regulations. Industry-wide problems include slow payments of refunds and compensation to harmed customers. The airlines owe roughly $10 billion in unpaid refunds and other compensation to customers, which have accumulated over the course of the pandemic.
The industry as a whole is so thinly staffed (in pursuit of higher profits) that problems with cancellations and delays are happening fairly regularly when travel peaks around holidays. For example, around July 4, 2022, the problems were bad enough that Attorneys General of 38 states wrote to Congress in August to complain that the federal Department of Transportation (DOT) wasn’t doing enough to respond to customer complaints and problems. Last fall, the DOT imposed fines on airlines (but not Southwest) of $7.25 million in total for delays in providing refunds and compensation to customers. 
The airline industry is another example of the poor treatment of workers and customers because U.S. policies allow extreme capitalism and big profits. The big profits are used, of course, to reward shareholders and executives rather than to invest in the business, reward workers, or improve service and prices for customers. I’ve previously written about extreme capitalism in general here and here, as well as about its manifestations specifically in the railroad industry (here and here), in the food industry, and in Medicare privatization.
I urge you to contact President Biden and your U.S. Representative and Senators to ask them to support stronger regulation of businesses, better protection for consumers, more enforcement of antitrust laws, and enhanced support for workers and their unions. We need to temper the extreme capitalism in the U.S. because it’s hurting workers and consumers, as well as leading to high and growing levels of economic insecurity and inequality. You can email President Biden at http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments or you can call the White House comment line at 202-456-1111 or the switchboard at 202-456-1414. You can find contact information for your US Representative at http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.
 Stancil, K., 12/28/22, “Southwest under fire for mass flight cancellations, ‘despicable’ treatment of workers,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/southwest-airlines-corporate-greed)
 Johnson, J., 1/8/23, “Southwest Airlines spent $5.6 billion on shareholder gifts in years ahead of mass cancellation crisis,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/southwest-airlines-shareholder-gifts)
 Johnson, J., 1/12/23, “‘They are just mocking Pete Buttigieg’: Southwest promotes executives after historic meltdown,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/southwest-promotes-executives)
 Johnson, J., 1/8/23, “Sanders calls on Buttigieg to hold Southwest CEO accountable for ‘greed and incompetence’,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/sanders-southwest-greed)
2 thoughts on “SOUTHWEST AIRLINES: ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF EXTREME CAPITALISM”
Thanks, Carolyn. We have very strong evidence over 40 years of experience that cutting taxes for big corporations does NOT benefit anyone other than shareholders and corporate executives. Moreover, the evidence seems to suggest that raising taxes on big corporations and the wealthy tends to increase economic growth, which does benefit everyone, in addition to providing revenue for public purposes.
I ‘ve always been suspicious of the old trope about lower corporate taxation for business/corporations being good for ‘everyone’ because it encourages reinvestment in infrastructure. Who’s watching was always my question. Now I know thanks to John’s excellent post.