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Why Did Southwest Airlines Cancel 30% Of Its Flights?

Southwest Airlines canceled almost a third of its flights on Sunday, the latest crisis in a chaotic 2021 for the air travel industry.

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Travelers across the country had a chaotic weekend as Southwest Airlines canceled 30% of its flights on Sunday the company has alleged that a combination of “ATC (air traffic control) issues and disruptive weather” are the responsibility of the massive cancellation numbers of the airline. If this rationale were to be true it could be expected that other airlines have experienced similar disruptions, however, this is not what is happening.

While Southwest customers endured the cancellation of a third of the carriers’ flights on Sunday, American Airlines only canceled 5% of its flights, Spirit had an attrition rate of 4%, and United Airlines did not cancel a single flight on that same day. Due to this disparity between airlines, many have cast doubt on Southwest’s official rationale for the cancellation spree.

A travel industry analyst quoted in an article in the Associated Press said that there might be other reasons for the widespread failure. Henry Hartveldt, the president of the San Francisco-based Atmosphere Research Group has said that Southwest might be under pressure due to the company overscheduling flights or because a few delays in the airline can create a cascade effect down the line, which could explain the uptick in cancellation this weekend.

It appears that the airline has managed some of its operational issues, with only 10% of its flights being canceled as of Monday at 11:00 AM. However, this number remains much higher than those of American and United Airlines (1%) and it could increase as the day continues.

American Airlines
Other carriers, like American Airlines, have not experienced the same backlogs as Southwest (EFE)

There has also been speculation that this weekend’s cancellation was related to the company’s decision on October 4th to comply with Biden’s vaccine mandate, with the airline deciding that all employees must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by mid-December. This decision was contested by Southwest’s pilot’s labor Union, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) who filed for a Temporary Restraint Order to prevent the company from implementing the mandate.

This possible explanation was also referenced by Hartveldt, who said that the possibility that Southwest employees might be engaging in a “work slowdown” is troubling. Conservative politicians have also alleged that the company’s woes were related to the vaccine mandates, with Republican Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) tweeting that thanks to “Joe Biden’s illegal vaccine mandates (…) we’re short on pilots & air traffic controllers”.

In comments for El American Ron DeSanti’s press Secretary, Christina Pushaw, said that “it is obvious that the thousands of cancellations (…) are not related to severe weather” and that the staffing issue appears to be only affecting Southwest. Pushaw also said that there have been some reports about an increase in the number of workers asking for sick leave.

El American asked for Southwest to comment on this issue and the airline sent us an updated press release where the company stresses that the delays were “not a result of Southwest employees demonstrations”.

United Airlines, El American
There has been controversy over the reason why Southwest cancelled so many of its flights(EFE)

On the same line, Leland Vittert -an anchor for the program News Nation Now- reported that, according to airline sources, a “mass sickout in the FAA center in Jacksonville- caused ripple effect” which mostly affected Southwest airlines.

These reports remain unconfirmed, however, and according to Fox Business, Southwest emailed a statement over the issue saying that the cancellations were not “the result of employee demonstrations” and a press release by the SWAPA  issued on Saturday clarified that although the delays were caused by “a number of issues”, the association declared that “we can say with confidence that our Pilots are not participating in any official or unofficial job actions”.

Southwest is not the first airline to suffer chronic cancellations this year

While Southwest’s logistical nightmare might be on the headlines today, it has not been the only company in the air travel industry that has suffered massive operational challenges this year. Early this summer, Spirit Airlines also canceled a substantial amount of its flights during the early weeks of August.

Back then, Spirit’s management blamed “overlapping operational issues” for the delays and cancellations, which at its height were over 50% of its flight schedule which left thousands of customers stranded in airports across the nation.

An article by the Wall Street Journal published in September described the many logistical difficulties faced by many airlines over the summer, with not only Spirit canceling its flights but other carriers reporting significant delays in their flight schedules, with Southwest having one-third of its flight arriving late during the summer. The piece explains that a combination of labor shortages and companies scheduling more flights than they were capable of conducting.

southwest-airlines
Southwest’s recent woes are the latest crisis in a chaotic year for the air travel industry (EFE)

The article, written before this weekend’s logistical bottleneck, also explains that Southwest was having issues “getting employees back” and was even offering bonuses to encourage workers to take more shifts during the summer.

For Pushaw this is a sign of why vaccine mandates are not the appropriate policy as “threatening to fire qualified workers- when there is already a shortage of pilots and crew- (…) only makes their problems more catastrophic”.

Whether Southwest’s logistical failures are caused due to weather, the logistical problems airlines are facing, an unintended consequence of vaccine mandates, or a mix of all the above remains to be determined.  

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