Southwest Airlines says rumors that as many as 150 ramp agents in Denver walked off the job over the last few days after an internal memo from management told staffers that they would be directed to do mandatory overtime or face the threat of termination are unfounded.
Operations in Denver have been under strain as a result of Winter Storm Elliot, and ramp agents have been working outside in treacherous conditions and sub-zero temperatures. A Southwest Airlines spokesperson said a decision to ‘rotate’ ramp crew more often was behind some of the long flight delays and cancellations.
Southwest Airlines has been forced to cancel hundreds of flights across its system as a result of the wintery conditions sweeping the United States, although the airline is under so much pressure even it can’t say exactly how many flights have been scrapped over the last few days.
As cancellations started to stack up, there were rumors of a mass walkout by Southwest ramp agents due to working conditions. The rumors were accompanied by an internal memo that allegedly threatened termination of employees who refused mandatory overtime.
The memo also warned of a “high number of absences” that had necessitated the airline to declare a ‘state of operational emergency’ in Denver.
Ramp agents were told that employees “alleging illness” would need to provide a doctor’s note and that failure to comply would “be considered insubordination and abuse of sick leave which will result in your termination”.
Taking to Twitter, John M. Erickson described Southwest as “the worst airline ever” after he was stranded in Denver. “No gate agents, no flights, long lines, literally cancelled everything and left people stranded. Shameful,” Erickson wrote.
On Thursday, a Denver-bound Southwest Airlines was even reportedly forced to return to Tampa due to a lack of ramp agents at the Colorado airport. Southwest flight 2703 departed Tampa just a few minutes late and was flying over Oklahoma when it suddenly turned back and landed right back where it started.
The same flight landed in Denver on Friday without incident.
A spokesperson for the carrier confirmed on Saturday morning that rumors of a ramp agent walkout were unfounded.
“Due to the conditions, we’ve been rotating ramp crews to limit exposing our People for an extended period,” an emailed statement from the airline explained.
“As this requires essentially double the Employees to turn an aircraft, we’ve reduced our operation at DEN until temperatures rise. We’re optimistic today’s and the future weather forecast looks more promising.”
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.