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Business/Economy

Southwest Airlines, pilots’ union say vaccine mandate had nothing to do with canceled flights

A Southwest Airlines airplane takes off.
Some flight cancellations led some public figures like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to claim that pilots weren’t showing up to work in protest of Southwest’s new vaccine mandate.

Southwest Airlines was forced to cancel thousands of flights over the holiday weekend. The Dallas-based carrier says a perfect storm of factors was to blame. The cancellations also led some public figures like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to claim that pilots weren’t showing up to work in protest of Southwest’s new vaccine mandate.

Kyle Arnold, aviation reporter for The Dallas Morning News, tells Texas Standard there’s no evidence of a pilot walkout that led to flight cancellations.

Listen to the interview with Arnold in the player above or read the transcript below to learn more about how Southwest isn’t the only airline starting to require vaccinations among its employees.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Texas Standard: What was Southwest saying about these delays and cancellations that have caused such disruption over the past several days? They seem to have been the only domestic carrier really affected over the weekend. 

Kyle Arnold: They were kind of blaming it on some factors in Florida, weather, some air traffic control slowdown, some military maneuvers near Jacksonville. But you’re right, American Airlines has a huge operation in Florida. Everybody else is flying to Florida because of high demand in this pandemic period. And Southwest, really, was the only one that saw anything unusual in terms of delays and cancellations.

Some are speculating that Southwest’s difficulties may have resulted from “sick-out” – an informal strike protesting Southwest’s recently announced vaccine mandate. What are you hearing about that and what are workers saying?

This goes back to last week when Southwest said that they would comply with the White House mandate for federal contractors, such as Southwest and other airlines, to have all their employees vaccinated. The union, they’ve filed a lawsuit to stop it. They want some concessions from the companies, some securities. But they’ve been adamant that they’re not anti-vaccine, that they’re pro-vaccine, but they just want to protect their pilots.

Over the weekend, as we started to see these delays and these cancellations, there was a lot of talk on social media that this was some kind of coordinated effort by a rogue group of pilots to shut down the airline, to say that they’ve had enough and that they won’t put up with this. The company is saying that’s absolutely not true; the pilots’ union is saying that’s not true. They’re trying to show their data on their sick calls to show that that’s not true. But you know, you have politicians like Ted Cruz, Donald Trump Jr., Sen. Ron Johnson, others, kind of perpetuating this theory that it was some kind of sick-out to protest these vaccine mandates.

Last night, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order banning all entities in Texas, including private businesses, from mandating vaccines. What does this do, if anything, to Southwest’s policy?

It’s hard not to see that as a shot at Southwest, American, the other airlines that have been under pressure to do this. Southwest hasn’t even really responded to that. They’ve said they’ll follow the federal mandate. It’s a little unclear what the state can do. Airlines are federally regulated even though they operate here. They’ve just kind of ignored it up to this point.

Southwest hasn’t been the only carrier that’s announced vaccine requirements for its pilots. What’s the state of vaccine mandates for the industry as a whole?

American did it about a week and a half ago. United did this a while ago. JetBlue, Alaska have done it. Delta is the only one that hasn’t done it, but they have some penalties in terms of health insurance. The really interesting one to look at is United, who kind of did this on their own months ago; their deadline was a few weeks ago. They said that 99% of people had either gotten a vaccine or that they had applied for a religious or a medical exemption.

So, you know, if you look at a company like them that does have big bases here in Texas and Houston, employees were forced to do it. And when their jobs are on the line, they went ahead and they got the vaccine. So it’ll be an interesting case study for American, for Southwest, for other airlines going forward, and if the big talk from those that are opposed to vaccines – if they’ll stick up to it when they’re their jobs are on the line.

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