US carrier Southwest Airlines cancelled a large number of flights over the weekend citing weather conditions and air traffic control (ATC) disruptions. Both company and pilot unions denied the events were related to mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations.
Although Southwest blamed the weather, it was the only airline to face problems on such a scale. The airline' almost 2,000 flights cancelled accounted for 23% of its routes.
Monday's cancellations amounted to 10 per cent of Southwest's schedule, and at least 1,400 other flights, or roughly 40 per cent, were delayed, according to the FlightAware tracking service.
As a result of these events, shares of Southwest Airlines Co. fell 4.2 per cent.
The airline said 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.”
“Unfortunately, the out-of-place aircraft and continued strain on our Crew resources created additional cancellations across our point-to-point network that cascaded throughout the weekend and into Monday,” Southwest went on.
The company firmly denied the problems were created by a strike against the vaccine.
Last Friday the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association asked a federal court Friday to block the airline’s order that all employees get vaccinated against COVID-19. The union said it does not oppose vaccination, but it argued in its filing that Southwest must negotiate before taking such a step.
The union denied reports that pilots were conducting a sickout or slowdown to protest the vaccine mandate, saying it “has not authorized, and will not condone, any job action.” The pilots association said instead that Southwest’s operation “has become brittle and subject to massive failures under the slightest pressure” because of a lack of support from the company. The union complained about the “already strained relationship” between it and the company.
Alan Kasher, Southwest’s executive vice president of daily operations, said the airline was staffed for the weekend but got tripped up by air-traffic control issues and bad weather in Florida.
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. United Airlines was the first major US carrier to announce a vaccination requirement. Southwest had remained silent even after President Joseph Biden announced his order for federal contractors and large employers.
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. Southwest has struggled this year with high numbers of delayed and cancelled flights. In August, it announced it was trimming its September schedule by 27 flights a day, or less than 1 per cent, and 162 flights a day, or 4.5 per cent of the schedule, from early October through November 5.
Republican politicians have described Biden's mandate as an attack on personal freedoms. Texas Governor Greg Abbott 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.