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When Southwest Airlines employees are asked about their company’s technology, one word keeps coming up: “outdated.”

Southwest has grown from a Texas-based low-cost carrier to become the nation’s largest airline operating three planes, union officials representing Southwest workers say the company has not kept pace with technological changes. And they say they have been raising concerns for years.

“We’ve been urging them every year since 2015,” Mike Santoro, captain and vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, told CNN.

The result: a massive Christmas travel crisis that ruined the plans of hundreds of thousands of travelers. Nearly 16,000 flights were canceled, leaving piles of luggage at airports.

Southwest emerged from the chaos and announced plans to “return to normal operations with minimal disruption on Friday.” Several union leaders told CNN that management had informed them of a more normal flight schedule ahead of the holiday weekend.

The airline’s plan to return to “irregular operations” has reached its limit as severe winter conditions ripped through much of the country last week, including major airports in Southwest’s network, according to people familiar with the situation. They and the airline described an internal process that required various departments to manually remap flight schedules, a system that works “most of the time,” the airline said in a statement.

“The size and scale of these disruptions is putting a strain on our technology and processes, forcing us to do a significant amount of processing manually,” Southwest said. “Our employees have been there in every way throughout this challenge.”

Other airlines were able to recover earlier this week; At Southwest, cancellations only increased.

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Although Southwest has major hub airports, most of its programming involves flights and crews crossing the country, a network that aviation watchers say is more vulnerable than the map suggests. Hub-and-spoke From legacy airlines that may experience disruption in specific geographic areas.

If something goes wrong, Southwest’s software, including the Workforce Organization tool, must do much of the work of rebuilding that delicate network manually.

“You don’t see a better way to fix anything when flights are canceled,” said Brian Brown, president of Transportation Workers Union Local 550, which represents Southwest’s dispatchers and meteorologists. “It requires a lot of human intervention and human eyesight or brainpower and it can only handle a certain amount.”

As a result, airline officials “don’t necessarily know where our crews are, where our planes are,” Brown said. Personnel planners in another department are manually checking which pilots and flight attendants are complying with strict federal rules on work hours, rules that prevent safety experts from overtiring domestically.

“You have to call thousands of team members and their wait times are hours to talk to someone,” Brown said. Software improvements will make the process more efficient, he said.

Manual labor means working crew members are stuck on long phone lines, waiting for instructions or hotel reservations as mandated by the central government.

“The phone systems the company uses are not working,” Lynn Montgomery, who represents Southwest flight attendants at TWU Local 556, told CNN Flight Attendants, which has created a domino effect of chaos across the country.

A large amount of unclaimed baggage is seen at the Southwest Airlines baggage center at Midway Airport on December 27, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. (Jim Wondruska/Getty Images)

Southwest has made some software improvements. Last year, Southwest integrated its reservation system with major reservation software used by corporate travelers. The reservation system was overhauled in 2017, overseen by current CEO Bob Jordan. In recent years, airlines have introduced barcodes and scanners that have replaced the pen-and-paper method of counting checked baggage. But other tools are rooted in 1990s technology, union officials said.

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As the storm blew in, Southwest crews scrambled to load baggage, load planes to gates, track departing planes back and de-icing plane surfaces to stay outside in the frigid conditions.

“We’ve had experience with people trying to get rid of snow planes,” said Randy Barnes, president of TWU 555. Some of the winds were so dangerous that workers were parked in the air in trucks. The buckets were in danger of falling down and the sprayed de-icing fluid did not reach the aircraft.

“They tried to take it to their local governing body,” Barnes told CNN. “They said they couldn’t do it, it wouldn’t work.”

Brown said he and local union officials have advocated for special wages and opportunities for employees working in these conditions to come in and take a break from the cold.

Southwest CEO Bob Jordan, who took the helm earlier this year and began working as a programmer at Southwest, apologized in a video message and promised to “double down on our current plans to update systems for these extreme situations. It’s happening now.”

As the airline prepares to operate on a full schedule Friday, Jordan wrote in an internal message to employees obtained by CNN that the airline is “in good shape.”

“We have all hands on deck and proven solutions to support restored functionality,” he wrote. “I’m optimistic, but I’m also cautious.”