Saturday, October 23, 2021

Amid Southwest Airlines’ woes, unsupported “sickout” claims take flight

DALLAS — When Southwest Airlines canceled more than 2,000 flights over the weekend citing inclement weather and air traffic control issues, unsupported claims blaming the vaccine mandate began to take off.

Conservative politicians and pundits, including Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, alleged that flight disruptions caused pilots and air traffic controllers to quit their jobs or become ill to protest federal vaccination requirements.

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

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

Still, Twitter posts claiming airline employees “stood up to medical atrocities” and participated in “mass sickness” gathered thousands of shares. Vague and anonymous messages on social media led to speculation that Southwest was hiding the real reason for its disruptions. Anti-vaccine rally cries like #DoNotComply, #NoVaccineMandate and #HoldTheLine are among the 10 most popular hashtags tweeted in relation to Southwest over the weekend, according to a report by media intelligence firm Jignal Labs.

Even as flights were operating near normal on Tuesday, the Texas-based airline remained at the center of the latest front in the vaccine mandate culture war, with its challenges being exploited by opponents of vaccine requirements.

Neither the company nor its pilots’ union have provided evidence to support their explanation for why about 2,400 flights were canceled from Saturday to Monday. Southwest said only that Friday in Florida inclement weather and air traffic control issues led to cascading failures in which the plane and pilot were stuck 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. As of Tuesday evening, it had canceled less than 100 flights, or 2% of its schedule, according to tracking service FlightAware, although more than 1,000 flights were delayed.

“When you’re behind, it takes days to catch on,” CEO Gary Kelly said Tuesday on CNBC. “We were far behind on Friday.”

Southwest struggled with delays and cancellations all summer. A senior official admitted to employees on Sunday that the airline still faces a staff crunch and may need to reduce flights in November and December.

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