From Friday through Sunday, over this past weekend, Southwest Airlines cancelled more than 2,000 flights. That number included 3 out of every 10 flights scheduled to occur on Sunday, and the disruptions continued into Monday, when another 337 flights — or about one in every 10 flight scheduled — were cancelled.
We were caught by The Great Southwest Flight Cancellation when our connecting flight from Baltimore to Columbus was abruptly cancelled in the early morning hours on Sunday, leaving us to scramble for a way to get home. Fortunately, we were close enough to drive home and were able to rent a car at the Charleston airport–thanks, Budget!–and make the nine-hour drive back on Sunday so I could be at work on Monday.
Why, exactly, were so many Southwest Flights cancelled? According to the story linked above, Southwest “blamed the cancellations on air traffic control problems and limited staffing in Florida as well as bad weather” and “told CNN late Sunday that getting operations back to normal was ‘more difficult and prolonged’ because of schedule and staffing reductions made during the pandemic.” But the article also quotes the FAA as saying that there have been no air traffic control related cancellations since Friday, and noting only that there was severe weather Friday afternoon. (We didn’t experience any weather issues on our drive back to Columbus on Sunday, by the way.)
The apparent disconnect between the stated reasons given by Southwest and the response of the FAA is feeding the theory that the “real” cause of the cancellation spree was a pilot “sick out” caused by the company’s decision to impose a mandatory COVID vaccine mandate. The Southwest Airlines pilot’s union filed a lawsuit on Friday, alleging that the mandatory vaccination requirement should be enjoined by the courts because it violates federal labor laws by imposing new conditions of employment. But the pilot’s union denies that the cancellations over the weekend were a planned labor action in response to the vaccination mandate.
What was the real cause of the Great Southwest Flight Cancellation weekend? We probably will never know. But the pilots’ union lawsuit suggests that we may see more labor issues arising–and more disruptions–as companies, unions, and workers deal with vaccination issues.