Southwest Airlines canceled several hundred additional flights on Monday following a weekend of major disruption due to bad weather and air traffic control issues. The company and its pilots’ union have denied reports of a work stoppage to protest mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations.
Southwest canceled more than 360 flights – 10% of its schedule for the day – on Monday, and more than 800 more were delayed, according to tracking service FlightAware.
Shares of Southwest Airlines Co. briefly fell more than 4% before a partial rally; they were down 3% in the afternoon.
The widespread disruption began shortly after the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association asked a federal court on Friday to block the airline’s order that all employees get vaccinated against COVID-19. The union has said it does not oppose the vaccination, but argued in its case that Southwest must negotiate before taking such a step.
The union denied reports that the pilots were taking sick leave or slowing down to protest the vaccine’s mandate, saying it “has not authorized and will not approve any professional action.”
The pilots’ association offered another explanation: it said the Southwest operation “has become fragile and subject to massive failure under the slightest pressure” due to a lack of company support. The union complained about “already strained relations” between itself and the company.
Airlines have convinced thousands of workers to take time off during the pandemic. The Southwest and American unions argued that management was too slow to bring the pilots back, leaving them understaffed.
Alan Kasher, executive vice president of daily operations at Southwest, said the airline was staffed for the weekend but had been hampered by air traffic control issues and bad weather in Florida and that she hadn’t been able to recover quickly. Due to the cuts during the pandemic, he noted that the airline had fewer flights to accommodate stranded passengers.
“The weekend challenges were not the result of protests by Southwest employees,” airline spokesman Chris Mainz said.
The White House has pushed airlines to adopt vaccination warrants because they are federal contractors – they are paid by the Defense Department to operate flights, including those that have transported Afghan refugees to states – United this summer.
United Airlines was the first major US 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 needed to be fully immunized by December 8 to keep their jobs. Workers can ask to skip injections for medical or religious reasons.
Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration acknowledged delays in part of Florida on Friday, but pushed back Southwest’s air traffic control explanation. The FAA said on Sunday that “some airlines” were experiencing problems due to the lack of planes and crews. Southwest was the only airline to report such a high percentage of canceled and delayed flights over the weekend.
Savanthi Syth, airline analyst for Raymond James, said the weekend’s troubles would increase Southwest’s costs and worsen the company’s strained relations with the unions.
Southwest has struggled all summer with a high number of delayed and canceled flights. In August, he announced that he was cutting his 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 to November 5.