Southwest cancels hundreds more flights, denies sickout

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DALLAS (AP) — Southwest Airlines canceled several hundred more flights Monday following a weekend of major disruptions that it blamed on bad weather and air traffic control issues. The company and the pilots union said the cancellations were not in response to the airline’s decision to mandate vaccinations.

10% of schedule

Southwest canceled more than 360 flights — 10% of its schedule for the day — on Monday, and more than 1,000 others were delayed, according to the FlightAware tracking service.

Shares of Southwest Airlines Co. briefly fell more than 4% before a partial recovery; they were down 3% by afternoon.

The third straight day of large-scale cancellations left thousands of passengers stranded and upset.

Explanations?

“My concern is we had no explanation really that was, I feel, very legitimate or believable,” said Brian Gesch of Cedar Grove, Wisconsin, who was traveling through Reagan Washington National Airport with his wife. He doubted that weather and air traffic controllers were the real issue. “So we are frustrated and missing a day of work.”

Some were less concerned about the cause than just getting home.

“I’m not sure what’s going on,” said Sean Merrell of Frisco, Texas, “but as long as I can get back to Dallas, it’s all that matters to me.”

The widespread disruptions began shortly after the union for Southwest’s 9,000 pilots asked a federal court on Friday to block the airline’s order that all employees get vaccinated against COVID-19. The union said it doesn’t oppose vaccination, but it argued in its filing that Southwest must negotiate before taking such a step.

Pilots are not conducting a sickout or slowdown to protest the vaccine mandate, according to the union, which said it “has not authorized, and will not condone, any job action.”

Pilots speak out

The pilots association offered another explanation: It said 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.

Airlines persuaded thousands of workers to take leaves of absence during the pandemic. Unions at Southwest and American have argued that management was too slow to bring pilots back, leaving them short-handed.

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 and couldn’t recover quickly. Because of cutbacks during the pandemic, he noted the airline has fewer flights to accommodate stranded passengers.

“The weekend challenges were not a result of Southwest employee demonstrations,” said airline spokesman Chris Mainz.

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, including those that carried Afghanistan refugees to the U.S. this summer.

United Airlines was the first major U.S. carrier to announce a vaccination requirement. Southwest had remained silent even after President Joe Biden announced his order for federal contractors and large employers. Finally last week, Southwest told employees they must be fully vaccinated by Dec. 8 to keep their jobs. Workers can ask to skip the shots for medical or religious reasons.

Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration acknowledged delays in part of Florida on Friday but pushed back against Southwest’s air-traffic control explanation.

Higher costs

Savanthi Syth, an airlines analyst for Raymond James, said the weekend problems will increase Southwest’ costs and worsen the company’s strained relations with unions.

Southwest has struggled all summer with high numbers of delayed and canceled flights. In August, it announced it was trimming its September schedule by 27 flights a day, or less than 1%, and 162 flights a day, or 4.5% of the schedule, from early October through Nov. 5.

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Associated Press reporter Tracy Brown in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

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