A Southwest Airlines jet takes off from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. 
A Southwest Airlines jet takes off from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.  - 
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Southwest Airlines long ago outgrew its role as a regional discount carrier. But the company continues to grow — this fall, it’s running its first non-stop flights from its Dallas home base to cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles — and it has seen some growing pains. Once the leader in on-time performance, Southwest slipped to the bottom last year, and the airline is still working its way back.  

Here's what happened: In August 2013, Southwest tried to make some extra money by adding flights without adding new planes. The tighter schedule didn’t work. Lots of delays.

But putting in a new schedule took months because of the airline’s antiquated reservation system.

"They would have had to go in and manually re-book every person," says Brett Snyder, who runs the site The Cranky Flier. "So they said, 'Well, this isn’t really feasible.'"

Because lots of plane tickets get booked months in advance, Southwest had to delay the start of a new, less-aggressive schedule until August of this year. Meanwhile, flights kept running late.

Southwest is still learning how to be a major airline, says Vinay Bhaskara, senior business analyst for Airways News. "They haven’t been this kind of airline for a very long time," he says. "It’s only been about seven years. United, Delta, and American have been that kind of airline for 30, 40 years."

However, Bhaskara thinks Southwest has strengths that will let it keep customers while it sorts things out, like non-stop flights to mid-size cities that don’t get much love from other big airlines, and — for now — no fees for the first two checked bags.

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Follow Dan Weissmann at @danweissmann