What are you going to believe: Official statements or social media?
The Southwest Airlines cancellations over the weekend are a good example of how news travels on two different tracks today.
In the part of the United States that relies on traditional media, rumors that the cancellations were the result of a pilot protest over coronavirus vaccine mandates were dismissed because, well, there was no evidence. Official entities, such as the airline, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Southwest pilots union, all issued statements saying the rumors were false.
But in a parallel universe of right-wing social media and television, the rumors were treated as true. Lawmakers such as Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) tweeted in support of airline employees who supposedly were fighting vaccine mandates.
“This weekend, in protest, a large number of Southwest pilots called out sick and they effectively shut down their airline. And many of them, you should know, admire the company they work for. They love Southwest Airlines, but they felt they had no choice but to do this,” declared host Tucker Carlson on his Fox News show. “The pilots committed the most basic act of nonviolent civil disobedience, something we used to celebrate in this country. They stayed home.”
Carlson offered no evidence to back up his statement, though he claimed to quote an unnamed pilot who said he was losing sleep over the mandate. He also interviewed on the air a pilot protesting the mandates who apparently did not work for Southwest. (His airline was not identified.)
The fact that no Southwest pilots have come forward to confirm a sickout undercuts the idea that the mandate played a role in flight cancellations. (As far as we can tell, no pilots were anonymously quoted in either the Dallas Morning News or the Houston Chronicle, two newspapers that would be in position to document a walkout.) But we are not going to completely rule out the possibility, either. Stranger things have happened and some of the official statements appear carefully worded.
As a reader service, here’s a timeline of what happened, along with some explanation. (In a previous life, the Fact Checker was an airline safety reporter for four years.) The rumors appear to have started because the Southwest pilots union filed a lawsuit against the mandate on Friday — just before the airline suddenly canceled thousands of flights. But that does not mean the two actions are connected.
Monday, Oct. 4: Southwest announces that it must comply with President Biden’s mandate or else it would lose contracts with the U.S. government. “Employees of Southwest Airlines must be fully vaccinated against covid-19, or be approved for a religious, medical, or disability accommodation, by Dec. 8, 2021, to continue employment with the airline,” the statement says.
Tuesday, Oct. 5: The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), which has testy relations with the carrier, says it will seek a temporary restraining order against the action, which it views as a violation of the union’s collective bargaining agreement. Under federal law, pilots are required to have medical certificates. “We want to be perfectly clear: SWAPA is not anti-vaccination, but we do believe that, under all circumstances, it is our role to represent the health and safety of our Pilots and bring their concerns to the Company,” the statement says.
Friday, Oct. 8: SWAPA files its lawsuit, saying the company had unilaterally altered the collective bargaining agreement. “The new vaccine mandate unlawfully imposes new conditions of employment and the new policy threatens termination of any pilot not fully vaccinated by December 8, 2021,” the lawsuit says.
That same day, hundreds of American Airlines workers, including pilots, protested outside the company’s headquarters in Fort Worth, holding signs reading “Mandates won’t fly” and “Don’t fire my Dad,” according to the Chronicle.
Saturday, Oct. 9: Southwest announces it is canceling many flights. “ATC [air traffic control] issues and disruptive weather have resulted in a high volume of cancellations throughout the weekend while we work to recover our operation,” the airline tweeted.
More than 800 flights were canceled and 622 flights were delayed that day, according to Flightaware.com.
The air traffic control facility in question is in Jacksonville, Fla. “We are aware that there was weather that affected operations at Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center on Friday, a common occurrence in that facility’s airspace,” Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, told the Fact Checker. ARTCCs are responsible for controlling aircraft flying at high altitudes between airports.
Okay, why would weather issues at one ARTCC mess up Southwest flights?
A key issue, according to the airline and the pilots union, is that Southwest does not operate with a “hub and spoke” system, in which jets return to a home base after almost every trip. Instead, Southwest is a still a “point-to-point” carrier, meaning planes and crews are scattered along a linear pattern when problems occur.
To top it off, Southwest flies to nine cities in Florida. “Approximately 40-50 percent [of] Southwest’s aircraft lines touch Florida on any given day,” the airline said in a statement to the Fact Checker. “Additionally, about a quarter of Southwest’s crew changes happen in Florida. In fact, we have a large crew base at Orlando International Airport, and that airport was shut to departing and arriving air traffic for multiple hours on Friday — preventing the flow of aircraft and crews into the network. As a result, Southwest ended Friday with about 100 aircraft (with crews) out of place.”
The airline also said that staffing was tight because of the upcoming Columbus Day holiday.
Amy Robinson, spokeswoman for SWAPA, said in an interview the union is not urging a transition to a “hub and spoke” system. But she said airline management has not been able to improve pilot scheduling to keep up with the airline’s growth. “Operating as a point-to-point carrier is much more difficult than 20 to 30 years ago,” she said, so the reverberations are bigger when an important traffic control facility like Jacksonville has issues.
A Jacksonville reporter tweeted that the chief operating officer of the Jacksonville Aviation Authority — in an email denying a vaccine walkout — said there were some “staffing issues” late Friday because some controllers who had received a dose of a coronavirus vaccine were required to stay at home for 48 hours in case there were any side effects.
But Michael Stewart, director of external affairs at the Jacksonville Aviation Authority, told the Fact Checker that even if every controller at the center had missed work because he or she had received a dose of the vaccine “it would not have affected Southwest Airlines” because other ARTCCs could pick up the slack. “If one of the centers in the country totally goes down, the system is redundant several times over,” he said.
Sunday, Oct. 10: As an additional 1,124 flights are canceled — about 30 percent of the airline’s schedule — SWAPA President Casey Murray issues a statement denying there is a vaccine walkout by pilots.
“There are false claims of job actions by Southwest Pilots currently gaining traction on social media and making their way into mainstream news,” he said. “I can say with certainty that there are no work slowdowns or sickouts either related to the recent mandatory vaccine mandate or otherwise. Under the RLA [Railway Labor Act negotiations], our Union is forbidden from taking job action to resolve labor disputes under these circumstances. SWAPA has not authorized, and will not condone, any job action.”
Murray charged that the airline’s operations have “become brittle and subject to massive failures under the slightest pressure.”
Robinson told the Fact Checker no pilot has resigned yet over the mandate, though vaccination records are not due to be submitted until Nov. 24.
The Federal Aviation Administration, in a tweet, also denied there had been any air traffic staff shortages, though it acknowledged issues at Jacksonville. “Flight delays & cancellations occurred for a few hours Friday PM due to widespread severe weather, military training, & limited staffing in one area of the Jacksonville en route center,” the tweet said.
Monday, Oct. 11: Southwest issues a statement again saying the problems started with weather on Friday. “On Friday evening, the airline ended the day with numerous cancellations, primarily created by weather and other external constraints, which left aircraft and Crews out of pre-planned positions to operate our schedule on Saturday,” the airline said. “Unfortunately, the out-of-place aircraft and continued strain on our Crew resources created additional cancelations across our point-to-point network that cascaded throughout the weekend and into Monday.”
Tuesday, Oct. 12: Southwest says its operations have mostly returned to normal, though more than 2,500 flights were canceled between Friday and Tuesday.
Gary C. Kelly, the airline chief executive, tells ABC’s “Good Morning America” that there is “just no evidence” of a vaccine walkout. But he added: “We’re not going to fire any employees over this [mandate]. We’re urging all of our employees to get vaccinated. If they can’t get vaccinated, we’re urging them to seek an accommodation, so we’ll do everything we can to support our people here.”
This was a 180-degree shift in position. On Oct. 4, the airline had said employees would be terminated if they did not comply. Kelly himself had said provisions for medical and religious exemptions “are very limited.”
In other words, even if there had been no vaccine walkout, the airline certainly acted as if its pilots were upset enough to stage one.
Send us facts to check by filling out this form