Southwest Airlines was forced to cancel or delay hundreds of flights for the second day in a row on Sunday, leaving thousands of passengers stranded and angry after the airline blamed a combination of bad weather and issues with air traffic control for its woes.
Many passengers were left incredulous with Southwest’s explanation, wondering why the problems hadn’t similarly hit other airlines. Others questioned what bad weather Southwest was referring to given that the weather in many parts of the United States was perfectly fine over the weekend.
On Sunday, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reported zero significant air traffic control delays at any of its major centers across the United States. There were no ATC delays reported on Saturday either.
It didn’t take long for the rumors to start. Disrupted passengers and activists took to social media to blame Southwest’s vaccine mandate for the weekend disruption.
On Sunday, Southwest proactively cancelled 1,006 flights, nearly 30 per cent of its schedule, while a further 234 flights were delayed according to data provided by Flight Aware.
Saturday saw Southwest cancel around 462 flights and delay a further 652 services.
“The revolt begins – at Southwest Airlines – Pilots at Southwest appear to be sicking out in a rebellion against vaccine mandates that has crippled the airline since Friday,” wrote Marc Morano on Twitter.
The theory was shared by hundreds of others who speculated that the cancellations were actually a result of a mass sickout by Southwest’s pilots in protest at the airline backing a federal vaccine mandate.
Chief executive Gary Kelly wrote to workers last Monday telling them that Southwest would comply with President Biden’s vaccine mandate for government contractors. Workers will have until December 8, 2021, to get vaccinated or face being terminated.
The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) has opposed the mandate and wants pilots to have free choice over whether they get the COVID-19 vaccine. Heading into the weekend, SWAPA filed a lawsuit in federal court demanding an injunction against the mandate.
Pilots are angry that Southwest has made unilateral decisions on policies connected with the pandemic and SWAPA believes the airline is violating the Railway Labor Act by not consulting with it over various pandemic policies.
Southwest has held firm, however, and says it “disagrees with SWAPA’s claims that any Covid-related changes over the past several months require negotiation.” A spokesperson said the airline was committed to working with SWAPA and other unions “as we continue navigating the challenges presented by the ongoing pandemic.”
So could a pilot sickout be the root cause of Southwest’s weekend of mass flight cancellations?
Both Southwest and the pilots union rejects those accusations altogether. SWAPA has been forced to publicly deny the allegations that its pilots were staging a sickout with a spokesperson for the union saying:
“There are false claims of job actions by Southwest Pilots currently gaining traction on social media and making their way into mainstream news,” commented SWAPA’s President on Sunday.
“I can say with certainty that there are no work slowdowns or sickouts either related to the recent mandatory vaccine mandate or otherwise. Under the RLA, our Union is forbidden from taking job action to resolve labor disputes under these circumstances,” a statement from the union continued.
“SWAPA has not authorized, and will not condone, any job action.”
Southwest claims the weather disruption started on Friday, and the delays and cancellations cascaded into the weekend. The airline said it hoped to reset its operations through Sunday and restore normal service as soon as possible.
“We experienced weather challenges in our Florida airports at the beginning of the weekend, challenges that were compounded by unexpected air traffic control issues in the same region, triggering delays and prompting significant cancellations for us beginning Friday evening,” a spokesperson explained in more detail.
“We’ve continued diligent work throughout the weekend to reset our operation with a focus on getting aircraft and Crews repositioned to take care of our Customers.”
“With fewer frequencies between cities in our current schedule, recovering during operational challenges is more difficult and prolonged,” an emailed statement continued.
The FAA also backed up Southwest’s explanation, confirming in a series of tweets that “flight delays & cancellations occurred for a few hours Friday (afternoon) due to widespread severe weather, military training, and limited staffing in one area of the Jacksonville en-route center.”
“Some airlines (Southwest) continue to experience scheduling challenges due to aircraft and crews being out of place,” the FAA continued.
Conclusion: speculation that a mass pilot sickout was the cause of Southwest’s operational meltdown are unfounded.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.