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In early October 2021, a false claim spread on social media that Southwest Airlines canceled a large number of flights due to flight personnel calling out sick in protest of COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The rumor was spread in part by elected leaders like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
Linked in Cruz’s tweet above is an Oct. 10, 2021, CNBC article reporting Southwest stated it canceled 1,800 flights due to bad weather and air traffic control issues. The article actually contradicts the statement made by Cruz in the above tweet, reporting:
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 labor union representing Southwest’s pilots, Southwest Pilots Association (SWAPA), released a statement refuting online rumors that the flight cancelations were the result of vaccine mandates.
In the statement, SWAPA president Casey Murray said the massive-scale disruption in Southwest’s services were because of management failures and that there was no organized labor action due to vaccine mandates:
SWA has made the news again this weekend due to another operational meltdown. There are false claims of job actions by Southwest Pilots currently gaining traction on social media and making their way into mainstream news. I can say with certainty that there are no work slowdowns or sickouts either related to the recent mandatory vaccine mandate or otherwise. Under the RLA, our Union is forbidden from taking job action to resolve labor disputes under these circumstances. SWAPA has not authorized, and will not condone, any job action.
SWA has claimed that the immediate causes of this weekend’s meltdown were staffing at Jacksonville Center and weather in the southeast U.S., but what was a minor temporary event for other carriers devastated Southwest Airlines because our operation has become brittle and subject to massive failures under the slightest pressure. Our operation and our frontline employees have endured continuous and unending disruptions since the first time our airline made headlines in early June due to widespread IT failures. Our Pilots are tired and frustrated because our operation is running on empty due to a lack of support from the Company.
The claim that Southwest flight cancellations in October 2021 are the result of airline employees calling out due to the COVID-19 vaccine requirement basically conflates two separate and unrelated developments.
It’s true that Southwest implemented a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which all airline employees must comply with by Dec. 8, 2021. Although SWAPA opposed the implementation of that mandate, it was not, the pilot’s union stated, because of anti-vaccine sentiments. Instead, SWAPA stated on Oct. 5, 2021, that the airline didn’t consult with the labor union about it.
There’s no evidence the vaccine mandate resulted in pilots calling out sick en masse. Rather, SWAPA stated it would take action by seeking a court order temporarily halting the vaccine mandate.
It’s also true, as we noted, that Southwest canceled a large number of flights, resulting in chaos at airports in early October 2021. CNN reported that the number of flights canceled as of Oct. 11 was topping 2,000.
Although the airline attempted to explain the meltdown by pointing the finger at bad weather in Florida and air traffic control issues, various news outlets observed that other airlines didn’t have issues at nearly the same scale that Southwest did. The pilot’s union blamed bad management.
Josephs, Leslie. “Southwest Airlines Cancels 1,800 Flights, Blaming Weather and Staffing.” CNBC, 10 Oct. 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/10/10/southwest-airlines-cancels-1000-more-flights-as-disruptions-mount.html.
Josephs, Leslie. “Southwest Airlines Says Staff Must Be Vaccinated against Covid by Dec. 8 under Federal Rules.” CNBC, 4 Oct. 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/10/04/southwest-airlines-employees-must-be-vaccinated-against-covid.html.
SWAPA Leadership Update: “Vaccine Mandate.” https://www.swapa.org/news/2021/leadership-update-vaccine-mandate/. Accessed 11 Oct. 2021.
Maruf, Ramishah. “Southwest Airlines Cancels over 2K Flights amid Nationwide Problem, Including at Chicago’s Midway.” CNN, 11 Oct. 2021, https://abc7chicago.com/11111262/.
SWA in the News. Oct. 10, 2021, statement. https://www.swapa.org/news/2021/swa-in-the-news/.