Southwest Airlines and the union representing its pilots say that crew members didn’t call out of work sick to protest vaccine mandates and cripple the carrier’s operations during the busy holiday weekend.
The Dallas-based airline has canceled more than 2,000 flights since Friday afternoon, citing a mix of bad weather, air traffic control issues and military flight maneuvers in Florida for causing a cascade of slowdowns that crippled its network through the weekend.
“The weekend challenges were not a result of employee demonstrations, as some have reported,” said a statement from Southwest Airlines spokeswoman Brandy King. “We have a closer to normal operation today, navigating some new weather across our system.”
The wave of cancellations came just days after Southwest Airlines announced that all employees would need to be vaccinated to comply with White House-imposed mandates for federal contractors. Several employee groups have objected to the mandates, including the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, which filed for an injunction in federal court over the vaccine mandate in relation to another lawsuit from the union against the carrier.
Politicians were quick to jump on the vaccine mandate as the cause.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, tweeted that Southwest’s troubles were evidence of “Joe Biden’s illegal vaccine mandate at work! Suddenly, we’re short on pilots & air traffic controllers.” Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs tweeted that he stands with Southwest employees fighting the mandates.
Donald Trump Jr., son of the former president, also joined in, blaming the media for suppressing protest news about vaccine mandates overseas and calling the weekend flight cancellations a “strike.”
While there have been employee protests over mandates, SWAPA President Casey Murray said there was no effort by pilots to disrupt Southwest Airlines operations.
“We have the data from this weekend and our sick rates were exactly in line with where they were all summer with the same kind of operational disasters,” Murray said.
It’s true that more pilots may say they are unable to fly because of fatigue during a weekend with a large number of delays and cancellations, Murray said, but he added that’s because there are more pilots called in and more pilots working.
Southwest also reported that there were issues getting hotel rooms for all pilots and flight attendants over the weekend.
Problems for Southwest peaked Sunday when the airline canceled more than 1,000 flights, more than a quarter of its total flight schedule. The delays confounded passengers because weather was clear over most of the country, particularly near airports that had lots of delays and cancellations.
“To recap the weekend cancellations, the bad weather and [air traffic control] issues in Florida, a large operation for us, on Friday night created significant flight disruptions throughout our network and we spent the weekend working to recover from the high number of displaced crews and aircraft,” King said in a statement. “Although we have some new weather in parts of our system, today’s operation has vastly improved from the weekend, with a much smaller number of cancellations linked to our weekend recovery efforts.”
The vaccine mandates have been a hot-button topic among airline employees, with hundreds at Dallas-based Southwest Airlines and Fort Worth-based American Airlines threatening to quit or allow themselves to be fired. About 250 American Airlines employees rallied Thursday in front of corporate headquarters in Fort Worth, an unusual action that was not coordinated by any union.
Unions have opposed the vaccine mandates, particularly pilots who worry that health side effects may put their commercial airline pilot license at risk.
However, many employees say they have personal and religious reasons for opposing vaccines.
But despite the protests, both the airline and unions are insistent that employees are not sabotaging Southwest Airlines operations to draw attention to the issue.
In fact, Murray said the operational problems mirror similar periods this spring and fall when weather and technology problems resulted in waves of cancellations that lasted for days.
Murray said even pilots unaffected by the weather were having trips rearranged to cover for other cancellations. After the initial series of cancellations, Southwest struggled to get pilots and flight attendants into position for subsequent flights.
Meanwhile, pilots and flight attendants were hitting maximum hour limits on flying set by the Federal Aviation Administration. Those pilots and flight attendants are then forced to get rest. Then Southwest must call in any leftover pilots to fill flights or reschedule crews from other flights.
As the airline has seen several times this summer, it’s a problem that tends to grow over a busy weekend until it culminates in days like Sunday, when 1,000 flights were canceled, according to Flightaware.com.
The problems may have been worsened by Southwest flying its busiest schedule on Sunday since the pandemic began. The company scheduled more than 3,600 flights Sunday with the Columbus Day holiday weekend and fall break for students in many parts of the country.
Southwest is planning to fly a similarly busy scheduled this upcoming weekend, according to Diio by Cirium.
The carrier told employees in August that it was reducing its fall schedule to adjust for staffing shortages and operational problems, but Murray said that strategy hasn’t held.
“So what ends up occurring is that they reduce flights, the operation stabilizes, they add more flights and then a few weeks later there are more problems,” Murray said. “I will argue that we will continue to see this until Southwest Airlines does something proactive to fix the operations.
“This is going to keep happening,” he said.
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