Community Development

What Planning Departments Can Learn from Southwest Airlines

Telling the temporary (and unwilling) residents of airports in Chicago, Houston, Denver, and a couple dozen others “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” is unlikely to get you a warm response. As of Tuesday, December 27, about 87% of all U.S. flight cancellations are Southwest, according to FlightAware and CNN. Tomorrow, that number is expected to reach a staggering 99%. There is no immediate correction to this in sight. In fact, many would-be passengers have been told they are unlikely to get home in the next 72 hours. You wouldn’t have to try hard to find someone or a friend of someone that is being directly impacted by this today.

The knee-jerk reaction is to think that the weather caused this, but you’d be only partly correct. On the day after Christmas, in the midst of Winter Storm Elliott, while Southwest canceled over half its flights, no other airline was above a 15% cancellation rate, and all but two were in single digit percentage rates. But I come here neither to praise nor bury Southwest (tip of the hat to Marc Antony). The catastrophe that Southwest is experiencing provides a lesson to be learned by city and county planning departments across the country.

We’re learning from internal memos, employee statements, and customer interactions that the business systems there are the crux of the problem. Captain Casey Murray is the president of the Southwest Pilots Association and he told CNN, “We’ve seen these sorts of meltdowns occur on a much more regular basis and it really just has to do with outdated processes and outdated IT.”

Southwest is learning in a very painful way what happens when an organization holds on to legacy technology for far too long under the misguided belief that updating it will be costly, obstructive, and time-consuming. 

There are many planning departments at local governments across the nation who are in a similar situation.  They have dated workflows and legacy technology in place to deal with modern challenges and demands from developers, administrators, colleagues, and the public.  What does this look like?

Geography is at the core of everything a planning department does, and today’s planning department must embrace a geographic approach to their work…and a modern one at that.   ArcGIS provides the platform that empowers a planning department to meet the expectations of its customers, while optimizing workflows and creating a path towards sustainable development.  What does this geographic approach to planning look like?

It’s an understatement to say GIS has come a long way over the last decade.  The good news is web and mobile-based apps make it easy for planners (who may not be GIS experts) to access the tools they need to leverage this geographic approach to planning. 

While keeping dated planning systems and processes in place won’t likely mean customers are stranded in City Hall over the holidays, planners have an obligation to put their department’s best foot forward to meet the needs of their residents.  That process starts with GIS. If you’re not sure where to start, please feel free to reach out to your Esri account team or visit us at

Reinventing Planning is the podcast devoted to the modern approach to today’s planning, housing, and economic development challenges. Find it on Apple, Google, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

About the author

Keith Cooke is the Director of Planning & Community Development Markets at Esri. A graduate of Auburn University, he has been a GIS professional since 1994 and has worked for planning and community development agencies at the regional and municipal level. Prior to this role, he was an account executive at Esri for 15 years working with over 100 local governments. He is a frequent speaker at GIS, community planning, and economic development events and is an active member in the American Planning Association, where he has conducted nearly 100 hands-on GIS workshops for planners since 2004 at the National Planning Conference and state chapter conferences.


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