What Caused Southwest Flight Cancellations? Debunking Rumors

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Oct. 12 2021, Published 9:45 a.m. ET

For Southwest Airlines, the weekend marked yet another challenge in a series of frustrations. Southwest flight cancellations reached over 1,800 throughout Oct. 9–10. Another 360 flights were canceled on Oct. 11 in addition to over 1,000 that were delayed that day.

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The spate of Southwest's canceled flights brought back memories of June’s widespread mess of flight delays that lasted for two days. Southwest Airlines’ share price dropped over 4 percent on Oct. 11, according to The New York Times. So, what caused the Southwest flight cancellations this time around, and will it happen again?

Are Southwest employees protesting COVID-19 vaccine mandates?

Despite what some conservatives have speculated on social media outlets, Southwest and the FAA said that the Southwest flight cancellations weren't due to pilots or air traffic controllers walking out on the job.

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Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and other prominent conservatives took to Twitter and claimed that the vaccine mandate caused Southwest’s weekend woes. Are the COVID-19 vaccine mandates related to this issue?

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Southwest employees are required to get a COVID-19 vaccine (or an approved religious or medical exemption) by Dec. 8 or risk losing their jobs. This is due to President Biden’s vaccine mandate for federal workers as well as Southwest’s own directive.

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Southwest Chairman and CEO Gary Kelly urged employees to get the shots. He said, “I encourage all Southwest Employees to meet the federal directive, as quickly as possible, since we value every individual and want to ensure job security for all,” according to NPR.

The Southwest pilots’ union said that COVID-19 vaccine mandate protests weren't a factor in the canceled flights. However, the union has asked a federal court to block the vaccine directive’s enforcement.

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The rumors about protests against COVID-19 vaccine mandates also claimed that air traffic controllers might be walking out on the job, but that would have impacted other airlines as well. FlightAware reported 1,124 Southwest flights canceled on Oct. 11, while American Airlines had the second-most cancellations with only 167.

The FAA also debunked the idea of an air traffic controller shortage or walkout. In a statement on Oct. 11, the FAA noted that there hadn't been an air traffic controller shortage since Oct. 8, according to CNet.

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Why did Southwest cancel flights?

Southwest Airlines has blamed weather and traffic control issues for the widespread cancellations. On Oct. 11, the airline released a statement saying that the cancellations on Oct. 8 were "primarily created by weather and other external constraints." It also said that the cancellations caused strains on crew resources and out-of-place aircraft that rippled throughout the weekend and caused more cancellations.

The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) stated that the flight cancellations weren't due to any pilots calling in sick or refusing to work because of the vaccine mandate or any other reason.

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The union placed most of the blame on the company’s point-to-point network and means of scheduling pilots. The union said that pilots are frequently reassigned and rerouted during disruptions. Casey Murray, the SWAPA president, said the rate of reassignment (71 percent of pilots on Oct. 9 and 85 percent on Oct. 10) was “unsustainable,” according to The New York Times.

The pilots’ union said that other airlines only had temporary issues. Southwest has become “subject to massive failures under the slightest pressure,” according to NPR.

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