By Rajesh Kumar Singh
CHICAGO (Reuters) — Andrew Watterson knows the cost of flight disruptions.
The chief operating officer of Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV) found himself in the eye of a storm after a blizzard last December forced the company to cancel almost 17,000 flights, disrupting travel plans for about 2 million customers.
With this week's U.S. Thanksgiving holiday kicking off the holiday travel season, Watterson can ill afford another fiasco. His counterparts at other carriers are also under pressure to deliver a smooth operation in a period when passenger traffic is expected to hit all-time highs.
Airlines have taken measures to beef up winter operations including investments in weather forecast technology and de-icing equipment, and increased staffing and training.
The high-profile operational meltdown cost Southwest more than $1 billion and prompted scrutiny from U.S. Congress and other government agencies. Watterson himself faced criticism from U.S. lawmakers for the debacle.
However, in an interview with Reuters, the executive cited Southwest's technology upgrades and investments made since the Dallas-based carrier's meltdown to help deal with any weather event this year.
«We are now so much better prepared,» he said.
The expected record travel comes at a time when airlines are grappling with a shortage of air-traffic controllers, congested airspace and limitations on runways and airport gates, forcing many companies to cut flights.
Southwest attributed its service breakdown last Christmas to a «historic» winter storm, both in size and scale, that caused frozen jet bridges and icy aircraft engines. Its problems, however, were compounded by a dated system for scheduling of crews.
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