A sickout among air-traffic controllers rather than Southwest employees would explain why the airline’s pilots union has been adamant that its members didn’t stage any slowdown to protest the company’s new vaccine mandate. (Although that didn’t stop Tucker Carlson from crediting them for Southwest’s scheduling problems: “The pilots committed the most basic act of nonviolent civil disobedience, something we used to celebrate in this country. They stayed home.”) Notably, although the union and airline management have each insisted there was no sickout among staff, Southwest did acknowledge unspecified issues with air-traffic control in Florida over the weekend.
Maybe there really was a vax-related sickout that brought the airline to its knees — but not by the company’s employees. By the FAA’s.
Jen Psaki scoffed at the idea yesterday…
.@PressSec on people who say vaccine mandates have reduced the workforce: "I know world-renowned business, travel, and health expert Senator Ted Cruz has made that point, but I wouldn't say that is widely acknowledged or echoed by business leaders…by health experts…” pic.twitter.com/RbLq053T5M
— CSPAN (@cspan) October 12, 2021
…but Ted Cruz replied that he’d spoken personally with a “senior source in aviation” who confirmed it:
– As a result, out of 33 air traffic controllers ONLY THREE showed up to work;
– That resulted in cascading flight cancellations.
True or False, Jen? Or do you just do petty insults & ignore actual facts?#ThanksJoe
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) October 12, 2021
An allegation made by a U.S. senator is a serious thing but it’s passing strange that we’re on day five of this story and no one will go on the record to confirm the sickout. True, participants in a protest would have a reason not to do so, namely, fear of losing their jobs. But (a) they’d have so much support for their protest on the American right that you would think that might embolden a few to go public and (b) thanks to Biden’s federal vaccine mandate, they’re at risk of losing their jobs anyway. Unless they intend to get tested weekly in lieu of being immunized, it’s either get the shots or get fired. So what do they have to lose by becoming the face of a national civil-disobedience movement, knowing they’ll be rapturously received by Republicans?
One thing about anti-vaxxers: They’re usually not reluctant to trumpet their beliefs publicly. The people behind the alleged sickout in Florida have been uncharacteristically shy so far.
What we’re left with is a test of credibility between two sides with political motives. The media is pro-mandate and therefore has an incentive not to publicize a successful grassroots effort to punish a major airline for its new vaccine mandate. Righty populists have an incentive in the opposite direction, to treat what may be a coincidence of timing — the Southwest snarl happened just days after the company’s mandate was imposed — as cause-and-effect, replete with conveniently anonymous sources claiming that this was the deliberate result of a coordinated walkout.
An obvious question: If the “air-traffic control issues” that created a problem for Southwest over the weekend weren’t the result of a protest then what caused them? According to Politifact:
[T]he Federal Aviation Administration tweeted that there have been no air traffic staffing shortages reported since Oct. 8 — contradicting related social media rumors, which claimed air traffic controllers had also staged walkouts or sickouts to protest the vaccine mandates. An FAA spokesperson told PolitiFact that any staffing issues would be seen on the agency’s website.’
The FAA’s tweet said the problems the evening of Oct. 8 were “due to widespread severe weather, military training, & limited staffing in one area of the Jacksonville en route center.”
The chief operating officer of the Jacksonville Aviation Authority also refuted the rumor about a walkout led by air traffic controllers in an internal email, which was obtained by a local reporter. The COO said the Jacksonville staff was limited Oct. 8 because of a combination of controllers who were on normal, approved leave, or at home because they had just been vaccinated.
We’re left with a conspiracy one way or another. Either every management figure involved in this story is conspiring to cover up a sickout designed to protest the vaccine mandate, up to and including writing a false internal email with an eye to leaking that email to the media. Or anti-vaxxers inside the industry are seizing opportunistically on what was just a cascade of innocent staffing problems and whispering to sympathetic politicians and media that it was secretly the result of a walkout which no one seems able to confirm.
Given how invested mandate opponents have become in the idea of a great Southwest sickout, it may be impossible to disprove. If Southwest management and the pilots union and the FAA and the JAA denying it isn’t enough to put it to bed, what is? Would affidavits from all of Jacksonville’s air-traffic controllers insisting they weren’t missing work to protest the mandate suffice?
The only way to resolve this definitively is to have a sickout participant, preferably a number of them, come forward and confirm that protesting the mandate is what led them to skip work. As I say, they’ll have a heroes’ welcome on the right, if that’s any inducement.
One question to bear in mind about all this: If there was in fact an anti-mandate walkout by air-traffic controllers in Jacksonville, not a walkout by Southwest staff, why was Southwest the only airline to experience a scheduling disaster because of it? Granted, Southwest’s unusual point-to-point method of operation makes it more susceptible to nationwide logjams caused by canceled flights in one part of the country, but all airlines should have been affected by a local sickout by air-traffic controllers, no? “Other airlines … did not report problems as acute as Southwest’s, even those with several Florida hubs,” MarketWatch pointed out.
In reality, Southwest has had special problems with delays and cancellations for months. “[I]t had the highest percentage of cancellations and worst on-time performance among the country’s four major airlines in June and July,” long before it imposed its mandate, Slate notes. On Sunday a company executive told employees that “the airline is still understaffed and might need to reduce flights in November and December,” a product of buyouts last year during the industry’s 2020 slowdown.
All of which is to say, if there really was a sickout among air-traffic controllers to protest a vaccine mandate, why did it happen this past weekend and why were they uniquely incensed by Southwest’s mandate? Anti-vax ATCs presumably would have walked out months ago, in August, to protest United Airlines imposing its own vaccine mandate on employees. Or they would have walked out in September to protest Biden’s announcement of a mandate for all federal employees. It doesn’t add up.