Up in the Air: What We Know
The media continue to smother whatever happened at the Jacksonville airport, but public opinion seems unconvinced.
What actually happened to Southwest Airlines last weekend? There’s a lot that remains unclear, but one thing that doesn’t: The media seemed determined to keep it under wraps.
Here’s what we do know. Southwest Airlines canceled more than 28 percent of its flights over Saturday and Sunday—upwards of 1,800 routes—in a snowball of problems which began with staffing shortages in Jacksonville, Florida. Just a week before the flight fiasco, the airline told its employees they had to be vaccinated by December 8 in order to keep their jobs. The Dallas-based company said the decision was due to Biden’s mandate for government contractors, yet Southwest and several other Texas-based airlines have insisted they will continue with the mandate even after Texas Governor Gregg Abbot banned any Texan entity from compelling employees or consumers to be vaccinated.
As canceled flights and stranded passengers added up, rumors spread that the delay was caused by employees and pilots protesting the vaccine mandate by calling in sick. A provocative image of the Gadsden flag flying from a Southwest jet added fuel to the fire.
On Monday, Southwest issued a press release saying the cancellations were “primarily created by weather and other external constraints.” Elsewhere, they cited air traffic control issues, but denied that the operational challenges were due to Southwest employee demonstrations. The Federal Aviation Administration told a Jacksonville paper that the large number of cancellations were “due to a combination of severe weather, active military training in the airspace, and unexpected limited staff at the Jacksonville facility,” but said that air traffic control issues were resolved Friday. Meanwhile, the media obliged the public relations people, reporting press releases and CEO’s statements without a single quote from an effected employee.
As several on Twitter pointed out, the weather and other factors seemed only to target Southwest. Odd. Neither Southwest nor any official statement offered an alternative explanation for the staffing shortages, if it wasn’t due to the mandates.
Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, told the New York Times Monday that sick calls from pilots remained at a normal rate over the weekend, and those who stayed home did not do so to protest the company’s vaccine mandate. Yet in a typical day, according to Murray, about 10 percent of pilots are reassigned from the flights they are scheduled to operate; on Saturday, 71 percent of pilots were reassigned, and on Sunday that number reached 85 percent. For this, he offered no causal explanation.
Murray’s union has asked a Texas court to prevent Southwest from enforcing the vaccine requirement, however, saying the mandate unlawfully imposes new conditions for employment. The union filed the request last Friday, four days after Southwest announced to its staff that further employment would be dependent on their vaccine status, and right before the debacle—one of the many reasons the internet rumors have seemed plausible, at least. Hundreds of American Airlines employees staged a protest outside the company’s Fort Worth headquarters last Thursday, too, so the move would not have been unprecedented.
United Airlines, the first to impose a mandate on its employees, put those who did not comply on unpaid leave. On Wednesday, a federal judge in Texas blocked the airline from continuing in this tactic for anyone who requests a religious or medical exemption from the mandate, after the airline was hit with a flurry of employee lawsuits. Meanwhile, Delta remains the only major airline to decline to mandate the vaccine, and instead found a way to profit from the situation, charging unvaccinated employees an additional $200 per month in healthcare.
One news outlet did get a comment from a Southwest pilot, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. According to him, the shortage wasn’t an organized protest, but rather a loss of goodwill toward the company after the mandate was announced.
That newfound ill will manifested itself over the three day weekend, not with an organized strike, but with many disgruntled employees calling in sick, or not signing up for overtime to help the airline fulfill the increase in flights typical for a holiday weekend.
Regardless, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly came out Tuesday to clarify that no employees would be fired over the vaccine mandate, making it a good deal less toothless, at least. Whatever actually happened over the weekend, Kelly knows where the wind is blowing.