Unsupported ‘Sickout’ Claims Take Flight Amid Southwest Woes

DALLAS (AP) -
A Southwest Airlines jetliner taxis down a runway at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, Tuesday, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

When Southwest Airlines canceled more than 2,000 flights over the weekend, citing bad weather and air traffic control issues, unsupported claims blaming vaccine mandates began taking off.

Conservative politicians and pundits, including Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, alleged the flight disruptions resulted from pilots and air traffic controllers walking off their jobs or calling in sick to protest federal vaccination requirements.

The airline, its pilots’ union and the Federal Aviation Administration denied that.

“The weekend challenges were not a result of Southwest employee demonstrations,” Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz said Monday.

Neither the company nor its pilots’ union has provided evidence to back up their explanations for why nearly 2,400 flights were canceled from Saturday through Monday. Southwest has only said that bad weather and air traffic control issues in Florida on Friday triggered cascading failures in which planes and pilots were trapped out of position for their next flight.

The crisis peaked on Sunday, when the airline canceled more than 1,100 flights, or 30% of its schedule. By Tuesday evening, it had canceled fewer than 100 flights, or 2% of its schedule, although more than 1,000 flights were delayed, according to tracking service FlightAware.

“When you get behind, it just takes several days to catch up,” CEO Gary Kelly said Tuesday on CNBC. “We were significantly set behind on Friday.”

Southwest struggled all summer with delays and cancellations. A senior executive admitted to employees Sunday that the airline is still understaffed and might need to reduce flights in November and December.

Despite repeated requests, the company and the union have declined to say how many employees missed work during the crisis. They have said that absentee rates were similar to those over a typical summer weekend, but they have not put out numbers to support that argument. It is also unclear how many Southwest pilots are unvaccinated.

“We don’t know, and the company doesn’t know,” said Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association.

“Joe Biden’s illegal vaccine mandate at work!” Cruz tweeted Sunday. “Suddenly, we’re short on pilots & air traffic controllers. Thanks Joe.”

The Republican senator wrote in another tweet Monday that he met last week with leaders of pilot unions who “expressed deep concern over the vaccine mandates.” A spokeswoman for Southwest pilots said no one at the union had talked to Cruz. A spokesperson for Cruz did not respond to emailed questions from The Associated Press about whether the Republican senator had any firsthand knowledge of pilots or air traffic controllers skipping work.

Asked on Tuesday to respond to claims that vaccine mandates have reduced the workforce and contributed to supply-chain disruptions, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “We now know that some of those claims were absolutely false and actually the issues were completely unrelated to vaccine mandates.”

Biden’s order, which is still being finalized, would require employers with 100 or more workers to get vaccinated or tested weekly for COVID-19. Airlines, however, are government contractors because they perform work such as emergency flights for the Defense Department that carried Afghanistan refugees to the U.S. in August. That makes airlines subject to a tougher standard under the Biden order: mandatory vaccinations with no opt-out for getting tested.

Following the lead of other airlines, Southwest told employees last week that it would require them to be vaccinated by Dec. 8.