Thousands of Southwest Airlines passengers were stranded over the long weekend as hundreds of flights were canceled or delayed for three days in a row.
Southwest Airlines, the world’s largest low-cost carrier and a cult favorite, canceled 808 flights on Saturday, 30% of their departures on Sunday, and about 10% of their flights on Monday, as well as delayed another almost 600, according to aviation tracking website FlightAware.
Southwest attributed the cancellations to air traffic control problems, limited staffing in Florida, and bad weather. Southwest told CNN yesterday that restoring regular operations was “more difficult and prolonged” due to staff and flight cuts made during the pandemic.
"We've continued diligent work throughout the weekend to reset our operation with a focus on getting aircraft and crews repositioned to take care of our customers," the airline said in a statement.
However, the Federal Aviation Administration said there have been no air traffic related cancellations since Friday. The agency instead blamed the cancellations on “aircraft and crews being out of place.”
In comparison to other airlines, Southwest canceled many more flights over the weekend. American Airlines only canceled 66 flights (2%) on Saturday, and Spirit Airlines canceled 32 flights (4%).
Southwest’s pilot union, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), which represents over 9,000 pilots, claimed the canceled flights were due to “management’s poor planning.”
"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 union said on Saturday.
Last week, Southwest announced the Covid vaccine mandate for employees, which has sparked rumors that the canceled flights were caused by a pilot “sickout.”
Furthermore, on Friday, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association asked a federal court in Dallas to temporarily block the enforcement of the Covid vaccine mandate. Their argument is that “the company took unilateral decisions that require negotiations with the union.”
But on Sunday, the labor union denied a Covid-related cause for the cancellations, saying, "there are no work slowdowns or sickouts either related to the recent mandatory vaccine mandate or otherwise.”
Another reason why the cancelations and delays were so numerous could also be the way Southwest schedules their flights. Henry Harteveldt, the president and travel industry analyst of The Atmosphere Research Group, explains that Southwest “operates a ‘point-to-point route network’ that gives each delay a considerable ripple effect.” In effect, one canceled or delayed flight causes a domino effect of more canceled or delayed flights along the route.