Chaos caused by Southwest Airlines cancellations is set to enter a fourth day on Tuesday after the airline warned it is still working on the problems that triggered hundreds of flight cancellations.
The third straight day of canceled and delayed flights left passengers stranded and steaming from California to the East Coast, with pictures from airports showing long queues and children sleeping on the floor.
More than 350 flights on Monday were cancelled by the Texas airline following a weekend of major disruptions that it blamed on bad weather and air traffic control issues – but was the only airline to face problems on such a scale.
Monday’s cancellations amounted to 10 percent of Southwest’s schedule, and at least 1,400 other flights, or roughly 40 per cent, were delayed, according to the FlightAware tracking service.
By comparison, the second worst airline this weekend, American, saw two per cent of its flights cancelled. Shares of Southwest Airlines Co. fell 4.2 percent.
Since Saturday, more than 2,000 Southwest flights have been cancelled, potentially affecting tens of thousands of people.
The widespread disruptions began shortly after the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, representing 9,000 pilots, asked a federal court on Friday to block the airline’s order that all employees get vaccinated by December 8.
The timing has caused many to question whether the disruptions is related to the company’s vaccine mandate, with some claiming staff are staging industrial action over the decision.
The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association has denied the claims, but accused the company of a botched response to what it said would have been a minor challenge for other airlines.
A passenger at Orlando International Airport shared a picture of four children sleeping on the floor due to flight cancellations after Southwest Airlines canceled more than 350 flights on Monday, with a further 1,400 flights delayed
Travelers wait to check in at the Southwest Airlines ticketing counter at Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport on October 11, 2021 in Baltimore, Maryland
Passengers check in for a Southwest Airlines flight at Orlando International Airport in Orlando, Florida, U.S., October 11, 2021
The union argued that Southwest must negotiate over the issue because it could involve sick leave or disability if pilots have a reaction to the vaccine.
‘We are not anti-vaccination at all, but our pilots are extremely worried about how their medicals are going to be handled’ if they are unable to fly, union president Casey Murray told The Associated Press.
Murray said pilots had not staged a sickout because of the vaccine mandate.
He instead blamed the chaos of the past few days on Southwest’s operation, which he said has become ‘brittle’ and ‘cracks under the slightest pressure.’
He said the airline uses antiquated crew-scheduling technology that leads to cascading disruptions when flights are canceled in one part of its network.
Unions at both Southwest and American have also argued that management has been too slow to bring pilots back from leaves of absence that the airlines persuaded them to take during the pandemic, leaving them short-handed.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also denied that the delays and cancellations were related to vaccine mandates.
‘To be clear: None of the information from Southwest, its pilots union, or the FAA indicates that this weekend’s cancellations were related to vaccine mandates,’ the FAA wrote on Twitter.
Southwest’s incoming CEO Bob Jordan told the Dallas Morning Post on Monday: ‘There is absolutely no evidence of any kind of job action.
‘Their trips are disrupted, they have unscheduled overnights and they have all the same types of impacts that our customers experience. If anything, I think they’ve been heroes through this trying to operate.’
In a video for employees, Southwest Chief Operating Officer Mike Van de Ven said that despite ‘a very aggressive hiring plan … we are still not where we want to be with staffing,’ especially pilots.
The airline said on Monday that they had ‘numerous cancellations, primarily created by weather and other external constraints, which left aircraft and Crews out of pre-planned positions to operate our schedule on Saturday.’
They added: ‘Unfortunately, the out-of-place aircraft and continued strain on our Crew resources created additional cancelations across our point-to-point network that cascaded throughout the weekend and into Monday.’
And they denied that the problems were created by a strike against the vaccine.
‘As a note, the operational challenges were not a result of Southwest Employee demonstrations,’ they said.
The FAA denied that that the cancellations and delays to Southwest flights were related to vaccine mandates in a tweet on Monday (pictured)
Southwest Airlines cancelled almost 2,000 flights over the weekend. The has airline denied that employees protesting against a COVID mandate had anything to do with the problem. Pictured: Southwest planes are seen at the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, California
Southwest issued a ‘tremendous apology’ to its passengers on Monday evening
The FAA said Sunday that ‘some airlines’ were experiencing problems because of planes and crews being out of position. Southwest was the only airline to report such a large percentage of canceled and delayed flights over the weekend.
Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King said there was no evidence that would indicate the disruptions were caused by any sort of employee protest over vaccinations.
Some passengers were frustrated not just by flight delays but also the lack of a clear reason for them.
‘My concern is we had no explanation really that was, I feel, very legitimate or believable,’ said Brian Gesch of Cedar Grove, Wisconsin, who was traveling through Reagan Washington National Airport with his wife. He doubted that weather and air traffic controllers were the real issue. ‘So we are frustrated and missing a day of work.’
Others were just concerned about getting home – any way they could.
Kent Moddelmog ended up driving 700 miles with his 14-year-old son from Phoenix to Dublin, California, after Southwest canceled their flight and he couldn’t find a flight on a competing airline that wasn’t exorbitantly priced. ‘I wasn’t going to drop $3,000 to get back,’ Moddelmog said.
The sales director for a consulting company said he flies Southwest dozens of times a year but had ‘never been in a situation like that.’
Savanthi Syth, an airlines analyst for Raymond James, said the weekend problems will increase Southwest’s costs and worsen the company’s strained relations with unions.
Southwest has struggled all summer with high numbers of delayed and canceled flights. In August, it announced it was trimming its September schedule by 27 flights a day, or less than 1 percent, and 162 flights a day, or 4.5 percent of the schedule, from early October through November 5.
The White House has pushed airlines to adopt vaccine mandates because they are federal contractors – they get paid by the Defense Department to operate flights, including those that carried Afghanistan refugees to the U.S. this summer.
Travelers check in at the Southwest Airlines ticketing counter at Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport on October 11, 2021 in Baltimore, Maryland
Passengers queue up at the ticketing counter for Southwest Airlines flights in Eppley Airfield, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021, in Omaha, Nebraska
United Airlines was the first major U.S. carrier to announce a vaccination requirement. Southwest had remained silent even after President Joe Biden announced his order for federal contractors and large employers.
Finally last week, Southwest told employees they must be fully vaccinated by December 8 to keep their jobs. Workers can ask to skip the shots for medical or religious reasons.
Biden in September ordered that all companies with more than 100 employees bring in a vaccination mandate.
He has argued it is the only way to bring the pandemic under control, with 700,000 Americans dead from COVID and more than 2,000 people still dying every day from the virus.
The ruling has proved extremely controversial, with Republican politicians describing it as an attack on personal freedoms.
Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, on Monday banned companies based in his state from enforcing a vaccination mandate.
Fort Worth-based American Airlines, the largest U.S. carrier, last week told its 100,000 U.S.-based employees they must submit proof of full vaccination no later than November 24 – or be fired.
United Airlines imposed a vaccine mandate on its 60,000 employees, around 9,000 of whom are based in Texas.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson on Monday night claimed the Southwest Airlines chaos at the weekend was caused by pilots striking in protest against compulsory COVID-19 vaccines.
Carlson on Monday night insisted the airline was lying.
‘All of that is a lie, it’s not what happened,’ he said.
‘We’ve spoken to several people with direct knowledge of what actually did happen.
‘We can tell you the shutdown of Southwest Airlines over the weekend was a direct consequence, it was a reaction to, Joe Biden’s vaccine mandates.’
Carlson praised the supposed strikers for standing up for their beliefs.
Tucker Carlson on Monday night accused Southwest Airlines and their pilots’ union of lying, after they both said that there was no strike of staff. Carlson said that airline employees walked off the job in protest at a vaccine mandate
Carlson told his viewers: ”We can tell you the shutdown of Southwest Airlines over the weekend was a direct consequence, it was a reaction to, Joe Biden’s vaccine mandates.’ His claim was denied by the airline and the union
A passenger and his child were left sleeping on the floor after being stranded in Las Vegas
Carlson said that one pilot told him that the employees were stressed by the vaccine order
‘So this weekend, in protest, large number of Southwest pilots called out sick and they effectively shut down their airline,’ he told his viewers.
‘For many of them, you should know admire the company they work for – they love Southwest Airlines but felt they had no choice but to do this, nobody was standing over them, not the Congress, which by the way has excepted itself from vaccine mandates.
‘Not even their labor union, which exists and is paid to defend them, but they are not.
‘So in desperation, the pilots committed the most basic act of nonviolent civil disobedience, something we used to celebrate in this country.
‘They stayed home.’
Carlson said that the employees may have chosen to reject the vaccine because they already had had COVID; or they may have a religious reason; or they might be scared of stories about the side effects.
He said the vaccine mandate ‘has nothing whatsoever to do with public health and everything to do with the accumulation of political power.’
Carlson continued: ‘That is happening right now. Make no mistake.
‘It will continue to happen until good people work immediately to stop it.’
Carlson also claimed that the air traffic controllers working out of Jacksonville, Florida – who control much of the southern U.S., Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean – also decided to go on strike over the vaccine mandates.
Officials denied Carlson’s account.
A representative for the Federal Aviation Administration told Action News Jax: ‘Due to a combination of severe weather, active military training in the airspace, and unexpected limited staff at the Jacksonville facility that handles high-altitude, en route traffic, the FAA took steps to safely manage air traffic the evening of Oct. 8. Normal operations returned at approximately 10 p.m.’
Casey Murray, president of the pilots’ association, said: ‘I can say with certainty that there are no work slowdowns or sickouts either related to the recent mandatory vaccine mandate or otherwise’
But Carlson insisted that it was a walkout due to protests.
His comments echo those of Republicans such as Texas senator Ted Cruz, who tweeted: ‘Joe Biden’s illegal vaccine mandate at work! Suddenly, we’re short on pilots & air traffic controllers.’
Donald Trump Jr said: ‘The fact that thousands of Southwest employees walked off the job protesting the COVID vaccine mandate forcing the airline to cancel more than 1000 flights is not getting enough attention.
‘Media will make sure you don’t see it but keep watching, it won’t be the last protest!’
And Andy Biggs, a congressman for Arizona, tweeted: ‘I stand with #Southwest Airlines employees who are fighting against these mandates.
‘This isn’t about a vaccine, this is about freedom.’
The airline and unions both insisted Carlson and the Republicans were incorrect.
‘There is absolutely no evidence of any kind of job action,’ said incoming CEO Bob Jordan in an interview with The Dallas Morning News on Monday.
‘Their trips are disrupted, they have unscheduled overnights and they have all the same types of impacts that our customers experience.
‘If anything, I think they’ve been heroes through this trying to operate.’
The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association on Friday filed for an injunction in federal court over the vaccine mandate.
But they blamed the management of the airline, rather than striking workers.
‘SWAPA is aware of operational difficulties affecting Southwest Airlines today due to a number of issues, but we can say with confidence that our Pilots are not participating in any official or unofficial job actions,’ the union said.
‘Our Pilots will continue to overcome SWA management’s poor planning, as well as any external operational challenges, and remain the most productive Pilots in the world.
‘They will continue to be focused 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.’
The union called reports that pilots staged a ‘sickout’ in protest of the airline’s requirement ‘erroneous.’
‘There are false claims of job actions by Southwest pilots currently gaining traction on social media and making their way into mainstream news,’ said the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) president Casey Murray in a statement issued late Sunday.
‘I can say with certainty that there are no work slowdowns or sickouts either related to the recent mandatory vaccine mandate or otherwise.’