Southwest Airlines names new tech chief following holiday meltdown

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Dallas-based Southwest Airlines has a new technology chief, Lauren Woodsa move already planned before the company came under fire for a holiday meltdown in Decemberthe company said Wednesday.

Woods replaces senior vice president and chief information officer Kathleen Merrill, who decided to retire in December and move into an executive adviser role. Merrill had been in the job since 2017 and with the carrier since 2004.

CEO Bob Jordan had previously introduced Woods as the incoming chief information officer, but the company had not officially announced the leadership change.

“Lauren’s vast experience has prepared her well for this important role, as she’s built a stellar reputation for being an innovative and transformational leader in our technology department and throughout the company,” Jordan said in a statement.

Southwest Airlines senior vice president and chief information officer Lauren Woods.
Southwest Airlines senior vice president and chief information officer Lauren Woods.(Southwest Airlines)

Woods will have a key role in the company as Southwest tries to upgrade its technology systems after canceling 16,700 flights in December.

A massive winter storm and shortcomings in its crew scheduling software left the company unable to track pilots and flight attendants. It hampered operations for more than a week, finally forcing the carrier to shut down about two-thirds of its operations to reset.

The company initially said its crew scheduling software, provided by GE Digital, was overmatched, but has since cited weather as the primary culprit.

Either way, Jordan said the company is planning to accelerate technology initiatives to make sure this kind of breakdown doesn’t happen again. The meltdown cost the company $800 million and swung it to a fourth-quarter loss, with another $250 million to $350 million hit likely to come in the first quarter.

Southwest spends about $1 billion a year on technology infrastructure and is planning to spend about $1.3 billion this year, not including in-flight upgrades such as better wireless internet and power outlets in seats of incoming jets.

Woods has been with Southwest for 13 years and has been involved in some of the company’s key technology initiatives during that time, including integrating the AirTran acquisition and bringing in a new reservation system from Amadeus in 2017.

At Southwest, the chief technology officer reports to Linda Rutherford, the company’s chief administration and communications officer.

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