There’s a question mark at the end of that headline because answers from Southwest Airlines seem to be conflicting and/or disputed. Why did the airline suffer cancellations of over 1,800 flights this weekend? Was it weather-related and due to air traffic control issues, as the airline says, or was it potentially due to Southwest pilots performing a mini labor strike known as a”sick out” as a protest over plans to impose a Covid-19 vaccine mandate on all Southwest employees? The union representing the pilots says no such protest occurred, but the issue really has no good explanation on either side of the equation.
The vast number of canceled flights, coupled with a lawsuit filed against Southwest by the union representing their pilots, has people wondering whether the pilots themselves are attempting to flex some muscle in their fight against mandatory vaccination:
Airline insiders and conservatives are wondering if the cancellations are part of a “sick out” in response to the vaccine policy.
Southwest’s pilots’ union said the cancellations were not part of a planned labor demonstration.
More than 25% of the airline’s flights were canceled on Sunday per the FlightAware tracker.
“We can say with confidence that our pilots are not participating in any official or unofficial job actions,” it said in a press release. “Our pilots will continue to overcome SWA management’s poor planning, as well as any external operational challenges.”
As the story notes, Southwest is blaming bad weather and air traffic control problems, but no other airlines reported related or similar issues. This begs the question of what really happened over the weekend and why Southwest is so bent on mandating vaccinations on their workforce when a sizable number of their employees clearly don’t want to accept it?
The one thing that the airline and the pilots association agree on, at least in public, is that their pilots did not intentionally participate in a widespread “sick out” to cause flight delays and disrupts for thousands of travelers:
The disparity between Southwest’s operation and other airlines fueled speculation on social media that employees were calling out sick, with some suggesting it was in protest of a Covid vaccine mandate. Southwest said that was not the cause of the mass flight cancellations.
“It’s inaccurate,” a Southwest spokeswoman said by email. “There’s a lot of unfounded rumor and speculation circulating.”
The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, Southwest pilots’ labor union said that “we can say with confidence that our Pilots are not participating in any official or unofficial job actions.”
The union did say, however, that Southwest pilots are stressed to the max, and adding this vaccine mandate on top of already-fatigued crews is a bad move for the airline at one of the worst possible times heading into a busy holiday travel season:
“Make no mistake about it – due to months of staffing issues and inefficient scheduling practices we have been operating at a higher than normal operational risk,” the union’s safety committee told members in a post on Saturday.
It said reports of fatigue, which require pilots not to fly, are triple historic norms.
“All of these challenges have led to an added distraction in the cockpit,” it said. “This week’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate announcement by the Company only exacerbates the situation.”
Hence why the situation between the pilots association and the airline has devolved into a lawsuit in which pilots are seeking a court order to prevent Southwest from firing pilots that refuse the Covid-19 vaccine:
“The new vaccine mandate unlawfully imposes new conditions of employment and the new policy threatens termination of any pilot not fully vaccinated by December 8, 2021,” the legal filing said. “Southwest Airlines’ additional new and unilateral modification of the parties’ collective bargaining agreement is in clear violation of the RLA.”
Southwest set the deadline on Oct. 4 under a federal vaccination mandate for employees of companies holding contracts with the U.S. government. Workers can seek medical or religious exemptions. The union represents 9,000 Southwest pilots.
Likely not all 9,000 pilots represented by the association have refused the vaccine, but enough of them must be fighting it that the union has taken this position against the airline.
The bottom line here is that the situation for Southwest Airlines in relation to flight cancellations during the upcoming holiday travel season will probably continue getting worse, especially if the company proceeds with firing employees, including pilots, that refuse to be vaccinated by the company’s deadline.
If you’re a Southwest ticket holder planning to travel in the coming months, better watch the news closely and following this story since it could get much worse before it gets better for an industry still recovering from the plague of Covid-related travel restrictions.
The loser, in this case, is the traveling public which must contend with labor disputes, Covid travel requirements, and airline crews doing the best they can under the difficult circumstances being created around them.
Thank your pilots and flight attendants, they’re stressed and they need some encouragement.