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Thursday, October 21, 2021

Busy Holiday Weekend Brings Operational Woes to Southwest

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Southwest Airlines’ cancellation rate slowed on Monday following a weekend of widespread delays, speculation and finger-pointing.

As of midday Monday, Southwest had canceled 365 flights, about 10 percent of its schedule, and was seeing delays on just under 20 percent of its flights, according to FlightAware data. By comparison, Sunday saw 30 percent of Southwest’s flights canceled, and the carrier canceled more than 2,000 flights over the holiday weekend, citing “[Air Traffic Control] issues and disruptive weather.”

Southwest was alone among its peers in the rough weekend, with no other major carriers reporting delays or cancellations of a similar magnitude. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration on Sunday said that it had experienced delays and cancellations “for a few hours Friday [afternoon] due to widespread severe weather, military training and limited staffing in one area of the Jacksonville, [Fla.], en route center” but had no air traffic staffing shortages reported since. It added that “some airlines continue to experience scheduling challenges due to aircraft and crews being out of place.”

Such challenges are not a total surprise, as several U.S. airlines, including Southwest, saw operational challenges over the summer as they faced the growing pains of returning to pre-pandemic flight capacity while bringing staff and aircraft back online. Southwest on Sunday, a traditionally busy weekend with Monday’s U.S. federal holiday, was flying more than 90 percent of its capacity compared with 2019, according to Cirium data.

There was added speculation that Southwest’s challenges over the weekend stemmed from staffing shortages related to its recently announced Covid-19 vaccine mandate. Southwest last week said it would require all employees not eligible for exemptions to be fully vaccinated by Dec. 8 to comply with President Joe Biden’s Covid-19 action plan, which requires companies with contracted federal government business to have a fully vaccinated workforce. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) threw fuel on that speculation by tweeting a link to a CNBC story about Southwest’s cancellations and calling it “Joe Biden’s illegal vaccine mandate at work,” though he offered no evidence to support those claims.

Southwest has said the cancellations have no relation to the vaccine mandate, and while its pilots’ union, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, did ask a federal court in Dallas on Friday to block the carrier from imposing the mandate, the union in a statement over the weekend said its pilots were “not participating in any official or nonofficial job actions.”

“Our pilots will continue to overcome [Southwest’s] management’s poor planning, as well as any external operational challenges, and remain the most productive pilots in the world,” according to the union’s statement.

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