Southwest Airlines has canceled thousands of flights over recent days. Rumor has it, that’s because pilots called in sick to protest Biden’s vaccine mandate – but that rumor is hotly contested. According to the company, the pilots’ union, and the FAA, it was a number of factors, like technical difficulties and weather. Whatever the actual causes, a more important question as we head into the holiday season may well be: Has the problem been solved, or should we prepare for a Thanksgiving via Zoom?
It’s Not What It Looks Like?
“Joe Biden’s illegal vaccine mandate at work. Suddenly, we’re short on pilots & air traffic controllers,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) tweeted Saturday. “The fact that thousands of Southwest employees walked off the job protesting the COVID vaccine mandate forcing the airline to cancel more than 1000 flights is not getting enough attention. Media will make sure you don’t see it but keep watching, it won’t be the last protest!” Donald Trump, Jr. tweeted Sunday. Even the former president himself, Donald Trump the elder, speculated that the canceled flights were due, at least in part, to employee protests.
On the other hand, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly told CNBC Tuesday that vaccine mandates had “zero” impact on the flight cancellations. The company claimed that a number of issues factored into the weekend debacle, including bad weather and a brief problem at Air Traffic Control.
But could this be more than a simple social media conspiracy theory? Sen. Cruz shared a video via Twitter of White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki mocking him over the sickout rumor and claimed to have gotten his information from a “very credible & senior source in aviation.” And the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association did file a federal court request to have the vaccine mandate blocked.
Then there are the staffing issues that are confirmed – whatever their cause. Southwest Airlines Pilots Association President Casey Murray told The New York Times that the real reason for the cancellations was that the staff is stretched thin. Pilots unions have been complaining for months that their members have suffered due to the staff shortages, uncertain schedules, and even a lack of hotel rooms, as have unions for flight attendants and mechanics. Many employees have quit over incidents involving unruly passengers. In short, everyone in the industry – from the pilots to the passengers – are stressed, and that’s taking a toll. For that matter, how can the airline, the union, or the government know for certain that none of the staff who quit recently did so because of the vaccine ultimatum?
Southwest’s COO, Mike Van de Ven, told employees that a staffing cushion was needed to avoid similar breakdowns in the future, but that the hard times aren’t yet over. “I wish I could tell you that we are out of the woods, but I cannot,” he said.
Even if the vaccine mandate hasn’t affected company staffing levels so far, one must wonder if that’s only because they haven’t hit the deadline yet. Southwest employees have until November 24 – the day before Thanksgiving – to comply with the mandate or face unemployment. So, what will happen when it’s time to lift off for that Thanksgiving and then Christmas travel? While there are exemptions for religious beliefs and medical conditions, the real question is how many who oppose vaccination – or, at least, forced vaccination – will look for work elsewhere?
Then there’s the question of whether Southwest, or any other airline, will fire anyone for bucking the vaccine mandate right before the busiest time of the year. How many employees may simply refuse to comply with the rule because they feel the company can’t afford to enforce it? Evidently, Southwest is prepared to cancel more flights. The airline has already “made significant reductions from our previously published November and December schedules,” according to Van de Ven, “and if we think we need to do more, we will.”
There’s an old saying about stinky stuff rolling downhill, and it certainly applies here. Every passenger who can’t board a plane is another potential traveler over America’s highways. The week before and after both Thanksgiving and Christmas are already notoriously bad times to be on the road, and we can expect that to get much worse in the coming months.
Will America’s airline industry fail when it’s needed most this year? It’s certainly possible – and even if the staffing issues aren’t due to vaccine protests, that requirement – and the Nov. 24 deadline – certainly could become a problem. Whatever the issue, if Southwest doesn’t get it solved soon, America is in for a rough holiday season.
~ Read more from James Fite.