Southwest Airlines’ Widespread Cancellations Disrupt Weekend Travel

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Southwest Airlines canceled more than 1,000 flights on Sunday and just over 800 on Saturday, wreaking havoc on weekend travel plans for thousands of passengers.

The airline had canceled 24 percent of all scheduled flights on Saturday, according to FlightAware, a tracking service. By noon on Sunday, Southwest had already canceled 28 percent of flights scheduled for the day, with hundreds more flights delayed.

“We experienced weather challenges in our Florida airports at the beginning of the weekend, challenges that were compounded by unexpected air traffic control issues in the same region, triggering delays and prompting significant cancellations,” the airline said in a statement on Sunday. “We’ve continued diligent work throughout the weekend to reset our operation with a focus on getting aircraft and crews repositioned to take care of our customers.”

Southwest added that recovering from the disruption was more difficult than usual because it is operating fewer flights than before the pandemic, complicating efforts to reschedule passengers.

“We know the frustration flight cancellations are creating for our customers and employees and we apologize, and we again thank everyone for patience as we work first to be safe, and second to be as quick as possible in solving disrupted plans.”

The Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement on Sunday that it had briefly suffered an air traffic control staffing shortage, but that the issue had long since been resolved.

“Flight delays and cancellations occurred for a few hours Friday afternoon due to widespread severe weather, military training and limited staffing in one area of the Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center,” the agency said. “Some airlines continue to experience scheduling challenges due to aircraft and crews being out of place.”

Indeed, the weekend disruption appeared to be limited to Southwest. American Airlines had the second highest number of cancellations among U.S. carriers on Sunday, with fewer than 70 flights — about 2 percent of those scheduled for the day — affected.

Southwest suffered similar widespread disruptions over several days in June, which it attributed to technological problems, both internally and with a third-party weather data supplier. The delays prevented crews from reaching flights they were scheduled to work, exacerbating the problem.

In a statement on Saturday, Southwest’s pilots union said it was aware of the widespread cancellations. The union last week objected to the airline’s recent announcement that it would mandate vaccination against the coronavirus, but said that the cancellations were not the result of any pilot protest.

“We can say with confidence that our pilots are not participating in any official or unofficial job actions,” the union, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, said in the statement.

The union said that its members “will continue to overcome” management’s “poor planning” and other outside challenges, adding that Southwest pilots “always maintain the highest level of responsibility to their crews, their passengers, and our airline.”

A union representing Southwest flight attendants did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Southwest said last week that it would join several of its competitors in requiring all employees to get vaccinated, setting a Dec. 8 deadline to do so. The mandate is necessary to continue doing business with the government after President Biden ordered all large federal contractors to require vaccination, Southwest said.

“Southwest Airlines must join our industry peers in complying with the federal government’s Covid-19 vaccination directive,” the airline’s chief executive, Gary Kelly, said in a statement announcing the mandate. “I encourage all Southwest employees to meet the federal directive, as quickly as possible, since we value every individual and want to ensure job security for all.”

The pilots union, which said it did not oppose vaccination, had warned that enforcement of such a mandate could lead to labor shortages and flight disruptions. The union is suing the airline for taking a series of “unilateral actions,” including the vaccination requirement.

In a Friday court filing, the union said the mandate “unlawfully imposes new conditions of employment” on pilots and asked a judge to stop the airline from enacting that requirement along with other policies and actions.

United Airlines, the first large U.S. carrier to impose a mandate, said recently that nearly all of its 67,000 employees had been vaccinated, except for about 2,000 who had applied for religious or medical exemptions and fewer than 250 who face being fired for failing to comply. American Airlines, Alaska Airlines and JetBlue Airlines have since followed suit.

Delta Air Lines has said it will not require vaccination, but will charge unvaccinated employees $200 more a month for health insurance.

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