Flight cancellations were a routine part of travel long before the pandemic. But even in the new environment brought on by COVID-19, Southwest Airlines’ nearly 2,000 cancellations this weekend represented an extreme mishap and bad look for an airline that has long prided itself on its friendliness and customer service. In fact, this airline is supposed to be the one that everyone “loves.” That’s thanks to everything from the sometimes silly hostesses to the heart in the Dallas-based airlines logo. That customer-friendly vibe even extends to the company’s stock symbol: “LUV.”
But a lot, and we mean a lot, fewer people love the airline right now. Southwest canceled more than 1,800 flights this weekend, stranding thousands of passengers in the US That’s the kind of thing that already generates justified anger among travelers. But Southwest’s explanations of why this all happened in the first place raised as many questions as it did answers.
Southwest customer line in Denver, Colorado, after flights were unexpectedly canceled in an alleged strike related to the vaccine mandate. pic.twitter.com/dfly9PKw8b
– Marie Oakes (@TheMarieOakes) October 11, 2021
Record cancellations from Southwest Airlines
Basically, the airline blamed a combination of factors, including air traffic control problems and inclement weather. In a tweet on Saturday, this is what Southwest said: “The (air traffic control) problems and disruptive weather have resulted in a high volume of cancellations over the weekend as we work to recover our operation.”
OK fair enough. But the FAA itself also took to Twitter, posting a statement that basically can be read as: Don’t you dare blame this on us or our air traffic control employees. “There has been no reported shortage of FAA air traffic personnel since Friday,” the FAA statement read. “There were flight delays and cancellations for a few hours Friday afternoon due to widespread severe weather, military training and limited personnel in an en-route downtown area of Jacksonville. Some airlines continue to experience scheduling problems due to misplaced planes and crews. “
And as if that wasn’t enough? The FAA followed up Sunday night with this tweet as yet another defense of itself. Which he decided was important enough to pin at the top of his page:
The real-time status of air traffic control is always available to the public.
Watch anytime. Go to the source and see for yourself: https://t.co/2JqKd70wIr
– The FAA ✈️ (@FAANews) October 11, 2021
Blame it on the weather
So that’s the air traffic control problem. What about the bad weather claim?
One reason this claim struck some as suspicious is that wouldn’t you expect some kind of equivalent wave of cancellations from Southwest competitors like Delta and United? Especially since the weather was bad enough that an airline like Southwest canceled 28% of its flights this weekend? However, according to FlightAware, Delta Air Lines reported only three flights canceled on Sunday and nine for United Airlines. American Airlines reported 143. FlightAware, however, showed a whopping 1,019 Southwest Airlines cancellations and another 691 flight delays Sunday night.
A Southwest spokesperson said Bloomberg on Sunday what happened here was bad weather in Florida that essentially started a wave of outages. And that air traffic control problems limited to that region only compounded the problem.
Reports Bloomberg: “Recovering from these problems is more difficult these days because there are fewer frequencies between cities in the current schedule of the airline,” said the spokesman.
Rumors about the vaccine mandate
In the meantime, there is still one more complicating factor to point out. One that is responsible for dozens of angry tweets and social media posts denouncing Southwest. And there is a suspicion that the federal vaccine mandate is behind this as well, at least to some extent.
Major delays and cancellations for Southwest Airlines passengers. The airline reports that an air traffic management program has been put in place because the weather is causing flight setbacks. However, some passengers are hearing that some employees left work. pic.twitter.com/QSpQbglgnc
– Jewell Hillery (@HilleryJewell) October 10, 2021
“Joe Biden’s Illegal Vaccine Mandate in Action!” thundered US Senator and Republican agitator Ted Cruz, in a tweet on sunday night. “Suddenly, we are missing pilots and air traffic controllers.”
You can find tons of angry comments like that on social media right now. That’s why the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association decided to intervene, releasing the following statement on Friday:
SWAPA is aware of the operational difficulties affecting Southwest Airlines today due to a number of issues, but we can confidently say that our pilots are not participating in any official or unofficial labor action.
Our pilots will continue to overcome poor SWA management planning, as well as any external operational challenges, and will continue to be the most productive pilots in the world. They will continue to focus on their highest priority: safety. SWAPA pilots are true professionals and will always maintain the highest level of responsibility to their crews, their passengers, and our airline.
However, such assurance that the vaccine mandate did not trigger labor action here has not been enough to sway everyone. Here’s a reason: Friday, a few days ago, guess who went to court to stop Southwest from enforcing a vaccine mandate?
None other than the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association.
Reminder: @AirAir accepted $ 3.2 BILLION from taxpayers. That money kept its pilots employed during the pandemic. Also did @AirAir the first airline to post a profit. And now, apparently, many of those pilots do not want to help society by getting vaccinated.
– Andrew Ross Sorkin (@andrewrsorkin) October 11, 2021