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Did Labor Action Over Vaccine Mandates Compel Southwest to Cancel Thousands of Flights?

Summary:
By Lambert Strether of Corrente. Betteridge would be pleased; from the evidence we have, the answer is no. Let’s start with what we know. From The Points Guy, “Southwest suffers operational meltdown as hundreds upon hundreds of flights canceled or delayed“: Southwest Airlines is suffering an operational meltdown this weekend as hundreds upon hundreds of flights have been delayed or canceled outright. The airline is blaming weather and an air traffic control issue from Friday for the domino effect of cancellations. Thousands of passengers have been stranded at airports, been forced to wait in long lines, or spent hours on hold trying to rebook their flights. Flight tracking company Flight Aware is reporting 27% of Sunday’s flights have already been canceled as of around 8 a.m. The airline

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By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Betteridge would be pleased; from the evidence we have, the answer is no. Let’s start with what we know. From The Points Guy, “Southwest suffers operational meltdown as hundreds upon hundreds of flights canceled or delayed“:

Southwest Airlines is suffering an operational meltdown this weekend as hundreds upon hundreds of flights have been delayed or canceled outright. The airline is blaming weather and an air traffic control issue from Friday for the domino effect of cancellations.

Thousands of passengers have been stranded at airports, been forced to wait in long lines, or spent hours on hold trying to rebook their flights.

Flight tracking company Flight Aware is reporting 27% of Sunday’s flights have already been canceled as of around 8 a.m. The airline had said that things might improve today, but so far it’s actually gotten a bit worse. According to Flight Aware, Saturday saw some 800 cancellations. Sunday morning it’s worse with more than 1,000 flights canceled.

Seemingly driven by Twitter, right wing figure Alex Berenson (200,000 Twitter followers before he was banned) wrote “The revolt begins – at Southwest Airlines“:

Pilots at Southwest appear to be sicking out in a rebellion against vaccine mandates that has crippled the airline since Friday.

So, a pilot work stoppage at Southwest? After a few hours, Berenson’s claim leaped the Blue-Red barrier to #Resistance and #BLM figure Brooklyn Dad Defiant (918.4K followers), who tweeted:

Well. Obviously, I have priors on this story: I think the workers at the chokepoints in the supply chain (here, pilots, air traffic controllers, flight attendants, and ground personnel, for starters) have an enormous among of political power, should they decide to wield it to together. (See Kim Kelly’s On New Terrain.) So the possibility of a pilot work stoppage at Southwest pressed several of my buttons, and I immediately checked some labor accounts — Kim Kelly, Payday Report, Labor Notes, More Perfect Union, Strike Wave — to see what they had to say. Not a whisper. That tells me that it’s most likely that Berenson and Brooklyn Dad Defiant have hair trigger trouble on this story (although, speculating, for different reasons: Berenson from anti-vax, er, resistance sentiment; Brooklyn Dad from pro-vax tribalism plus hatred of unions). Also, if indeed there is a work stoppage, no spokespersons have emerged, or open letters issued, which strikes me as odd.

Be that as it may, let’s run down the remainder of the story. First, it has to be said that Southwest’s public relations effort was especially clumsy. Here it is:

Ticked off passengers immediately responded that both weather and ATC issues would apply to all airlines, not just Southwest:

And indeed from FlightAware, 1007 (27%) of Southwest flights were cancelled. The next highest U.S. airline, American, cancelled 63 (2%). So it does look like there’s something unique to Southwest, and it’s reasonable to speculate that labor issues are that thing. As NBC points out:

The disparity between Southwest’s operation and other airlines fueled speculation on social media that employees were calling out sick.

But at this point, speculation is all that we have.

Next, let’s turn to potential supply chain chokepoints. In this story, we have two: pilots (fingered by Berenson and Defiant) and air traffic controllers. (There is no chatter about flight attendants or ground crews.) Starting with the pilots, here is a press release from Southwest’s house pilot’s union, SWAPA:

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.

Note that SWAPA is constrained in this matter by Federal law. From the Dallas Morning News:

Pilots are prohibited by federal law from organizing a full strike that includes withholding labor.

(To give credit to SWAPA, they are contemplating authorizing picketing in the fourth quarter over working conditions. SWAPA has also filed suit against vaccine mandates. But neither of those are work stoppage.)

And now, the air traffic controllers. On the Twitter (although not for Berenson or Defiant) this is the alternate theory of the case involving a work stoppage:

(PointsGuy gives this credence by quoting it.) The account is an anchor at NewsNation, Nexstar’s national cable station. A reporter at NewsNation writes:

However, aviation and airline sources tell NewsNation that the ATC issues causing the cancellation of nearly 1,000 Southwest Airlines flights were actually caused by a huge number of air controllers calling in sick at the Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center.

The Jacksonville Control Center is one of the nation’s largest air traffic control centers that handle flights going to and from Florida. The sources also reported that the “sick out” relates to low morale and anger over vaccine mandates.

I think that’s thinly sourced (and verbiage like “huge number” doesn’t give me confidence. There are approximately 200 controllers at the station; I don’t know how many are on duty at the same time).

I’m having a hard time understanding why only SouthWest would be affected by ATC issues at Jacksonville, however. Here is local reporter trying to run the story down:

And here is the current state of play:

Finally, here’s the case for the defense of the air traffic controllers from the Airliners.net forum:

Everything people are hearing about a “walkout” at ZJX or whatever is nothing more than rumors and simply not true. On Friday ZJX experienced a very difficult day due to many factors, some of which were mentioned above. Staffing has been low around the country, some facilities worse than others. There was significant weather that moved from northern central FL to the east shutting off east coast routes. A major military exercise was also occurring and during this event ZJX gives away nearly half of its airspace significantly increasing complexity. ZJX often gets backlash from the command center on route structure and ground delay programs, so the facility was forced to take whatever measures they could on their own to manage the issue and even then some of the sectors west of the weather were heavily overloaded with no relieving controllers. People don’t typically think of Jacksonville Center when it comes to busy facilities, but it is without a doubt one of the most constrained facilities due to geography and military airspace, it works more volume than most level 12 facilities, and deals with the most significant weather.

(I can’t verify the trnsworld account, but they did join 22 years ago, long enough for a forum to sort out a troll.)

* * *

So that is where we are: Labor action over vaccine mandates by Southwest pilots highly unlikely; labor action over vaccine mandates by air traffic controllers possible, but lacking in evidence.

Perhaps if some newsgathering organization — say, a reporter at NewsNation? — could quote some actual workers, that would bring some clarity to the situation.[1]

NOTES

[1] There is, of course, the reality that our press and the liberal Democrat fraction of the political class declared a state of exception with Trump’s election in 2016, which continued through, say, the disappeared story of Hunter Biden’s laptop. They could simply be suppressing the story. From what I read, it’s ordinary corporate and government officialdom profit-seeking and grubbiness, not censorship. NewsNation did run the story, after all, even if they did muff it.

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