Did a sickout over a vaccine mandate really cause Southwest's scheduling snafu?

(AP Photo/Mike Stewart, File)

Leland Vittert blamed Southwest’s staffing problem to an anti-mandate protest in a tweet on Saturday and Ted Cruz eagerly amplified the news, but it’s strange that no one in authority has been willing in the days since to corroborate that on the record. If this is all due to a sickout over the mandate, why are management and the pilots’ union insisting that it isn’t?

And why haven’t other airlines that imposed a vaccine mandate on staff run into the same problem? United’s mandate has been in place for more than two months. And it’s worked like a charm.

This isn’t an either/or situation, though. It could be that Southwest’s delays are due to larger organizational problems that are being exacerbated by some pilots calling in sick to protest the company’s new mandate. Although, for what it’s worth, the CEO says: Nope.

Of course management would say that for PR reasons. And of course the White House would claim that vaccine mandates have no social or economic costs:

But here’s the curious thing if this really is/was a protest sickout by pilots. The union is denying it too:

When asked by CBS News if there was any chance the disruption could have been caused by pilots calling out sick over the company’s vaccine mandate, Capt. Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, said that was not the case and that the airline’s pilot sick rate for this weekend was “right in line with what was occurring this summer.”

“So outside of air traffic control and weather, you point the blame squarely where?” CBS News correspondent Errol Barnett asked.

“Squarely on Southwest, I point to how they manage the network and how their I.T. also supports that network. Once a little hiccup occurs due to the internal processes, our pilots aren’t getting to where they need to be. We’ve been sounding this alarm for about four years and have seen very little approach to correcting it,” Murray said.

Southwest didn’t impose its mandate until October so this summer’s sick calls weren’t related to that. “SWAPA is aware of operational difficulties affecting Southwest Airlines today due to a number of issues, but we can say with confidence that our Pilots are not participating in any official or unofficial job actions,” the Southwest Airlines Pilot Association said in a statement on Saturday. An industry reporter corroborated that:

What’s going on here? One flight tracker reported that “as of Monday morning, 38 percent of Southwest’s flights since Friday had been delayed, at least double the rate of its biggest competitors.” If employees dodging work to protest the mandate isn’t what’s causing hundreds of cancellations and delays by Southwest, what is?

This informative Wall Street Journal story claims it’s a function of Southwest miscalculating on staffing as the pandemic repeatedly knocked the airline industry for a loop. Last year, with demand cratering during COVID, the company successfully urged thousands of unneeded employees to either retire or take leave. The arrival of the vaccine this year led consumer demand to return — so strongly, in fact, that Southwest got greedy and added 18 new destinations to its schedule. Suddenly they had many more routes to run and fewer trained workers to run them with, leaving them with little room for error in keeping planes running on time.

But they ran into a problem this weekend in Florida, where nearly half of their planes fly every day, due to bad weather in some parts of the state and “air-traffic control issues.” With so much of Southwest’s traffic routed through the state, the local delays created a domino effect that turned into national delays. “By the end Friday, hundreds of planes and crew members weren’t where they were supposed to be, setting off a chain reaction that has taken days to sort out,” the Journal reported. “Pilots and flight attendants bumped up against limits to how long they can work, so the airline had to pull flight crew from reserves.” Essentially, Southwest bit off more than it could chew this year by trying to maintain a more ambitious schedule with pared-down staff. Once a wrench got tossed into that machine, gears started flying off in every direction.

That’s not all. Read Dominic Pino at NRO on why Southwest is especially susceptible to domino effects in scheduling. Most major airlines follow hub-and-spoke routes, in which planes operate back and forth between two cities. If you want to fly from Atlanta to New York on Acme Airlines, say, you would take the Atlanta-Chicago-Atlanta flight to the Windy City, then connect there with the New York-Chicago-New York flight. Southwest doesn’t work that way. It operates more like a subway, where a single flight continues on to various “stations” (i.e. cities) sequentially. A single plane may be scheduled to fly Miami-Chicago-Denver-L.A., dropping off and picking up passengers at each stop. But if that plane gets snarled in Florida, everyone waiting in Chicago, Denver, and L.A. is screwed. Which means many more cancellations nationwide.

Pino notes in his piece that Southwest imposed its vaccine mandate late in the year relative to mandate pioneers like United. That’s another thing that makes the company an unlikely target for a major anti-mandate protest: As you’ll see below, their CEO has been open about his belief that businesses shouldn’t be imposing mandates. Southwest went that route only after Biden’s federal vaccine mandate left it no choice. If airline workers are boycotting to show Sleepy Joe that his mandate won’t be tolerated, why single out a reluctant mandate issuer like Southwest? Where are the boycotts among the thousands and thousands of other workers who work for other airlines in the industry?

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