The next chapter in the Southwest Airlines cancellation saga

(AP Photo/Mike Stewart, File)

On Monday, Karen looked at the massive number of flight cancellations plaguing travelers on Southwest Airlines over the holiday weekend. The airline canceled 30% more flights than usual and suspicions had been raised that a pilot “sickout” in response to the company’s vaccination mandate might have been the cause. Yesterday, Allahpundit poked a few holes in that theory, suggesting that a cascading sequence of managerial failures and lack of planning on Southwest’s part might be behind it. Now more evidence has been emerging as reporters continue to question both the airline and the FAA and finding a single point of blame seems less likely than ever.

Southwest issued an apology for the inconvenience for the third time, but they continue to insist that opposition to the mandate has nothing to do with it. They’re blaming the weather, particularly in Florida, and an inability to get their personnel to the required positions to make all of the scheduled flights. (CBS Dallas – Ft. Worth)

Calls to Southwest Airlines, its unions, the FAA, and local airports turned up no clear explanation for why Southwest was experiencing far worse problems than other national airlines.

In a new statement Monday, the airline pointed to “weather and external constraints, which left aircraft and crews out of pre-planned positions”, a problem it said stretched through the weekend and into Monday.

“Friday, there was an air traffic control issue in Jacksonville, which does a lot of the traffic control for the southeast United States, but they were only offline for a couple hours,” said Clint Henderson, senior news editor for The Points Guy.

Blaming the weather is rather weak tea. Southwest has been in business since 1967. Florida always has some quirky weather in the autumn, so this is nothing new and they should have been ready for that. The real issue is probably found in their current business model. There is also another factor we’ve already looked at that is still possible but harder to pin down.

The one major factor taking most of the blame, though Southwest isn’t owning up to it, is the fact that Southwest let a lot of people go during the pandemic and they have been slow to staff back up. That leaves them little margin for error. When one flight fails to take off, the people waiting to board the return flight at its intended destination are similarly stranded, as are people waiting for connecting flights. Further, if the original flight had a pilot deadheading onboard, that’s another flight that won’t be taking off on time. During years past, they would have had enough people from all roles to put together a replacement crew and get back on track, but now they just don’t have enough employees to pull that off. One small delay sets off a cascading series of problems.

I still wanted to swing back to that potential pilot “sickout” idea for a moment, however. Allahpundit pointed out that not only did the airline say that wasn’t a factor, but the pilots’ union toed the same line. On the surface that may seem to put the issue to bed, but perhaps not. Keep in mind that the people who support the mandate (the airline’s management and ownership) have a vested interest in not making it look like the mandate is unpopular.

But at the same time, the pilots and the rest of the crews are not free to simply “go on strike” or walk off the job as workers in many other professions are. Due to longstanding labor laws, the travel industry is considered a critical part of the country’s infrastructure and they aren’t able to strike or disrupt the travel cycle without following onerous government rules and negotiation processes. They don’t want to be seen as running afoul of those regulations, so of course the union would say there was no organized sickout going on. But that doesn’t mean that a group of pilots in their own private chat group couldn’t organize a plan like this and then dare the company to prove that they weren’t really sick. That doesn’t prove anything, but I’m just saying that we really can’t rule the possibility out entirely.

As for the excuses Southwest is offering, industry analysts aren’t buying it. One travel industry expert quoted by CBS New York described the airline’s explanation as an example of “my dog ate my homework.”

“What really bothers me is Southwest just trying to blame FAA, or traffic control systems. It’s like saying the dog ate my homework,” said Henry H. Harteveldt, a travel industry expert for the Atmosphere Research Group.

“You have a little more extra demand and I think it just takes a little bit to push these things over the edge and it’s hard to catch up,” added Daniel Burnham, senior member operations specialist for Scott’s Cheap Flights.

Meanwhile, the people experiencing the impact of these cancelations have been talking loudly and one passenger’s tale was very different than many. What was planned as an overnight trip turned into a three-day ordeal. (CBS Denver)

“One night turned into two nights and was going to turn into three nights and that was too much for me,” said Shasta Bell, a traveler trying to get home to Minneapolis.

Bell had been stranded in Denver since Saturday, when her connecting flight from Denver to Minneapolis was canceled. She booked a hotel, and then on Sunday, it happened again. So, she returned to the airport to take matters into her own hands.

“I eventually just decided to cancel my flight and rebook with United,” Bell said.

So should these disgruntled travelers be expecting to have their fares and fees refunded any time soon? Don’t bet on it. Just as we saw when many flights during the early stages of the pandemic were suddenly canceled, Southwest and most of the other airlines prefer to give credit for future flights instead of cash refunds. Trying to get your money back is similar to pulling teeth by most accounts. The airlines should know that they need to do better but they won’t. That’s because there is so little competition left in the air travel industry that they are all in on fixing the system together. Most people have no other options, so there is little to no incentive for the airlines to do better.