would have to comply with Biden’s executive order requiring federal contractors to be vaccinated against COVID-19. On Oct. 8, a day before the extensive flight cancellations, the union that represents Southwest’s pilots sought to block the requirement, telling a federal court that the terms hadn’t been properly negotiated.
But, if anyone did call in sick, those workers don’t appear to have caused Southwest’s problems.
Here’s how the problems unfolded, according to what is publicly available:
On Saturday, Oct. 9, Southwest announced on Twitter that air traffic control issues and “disruptive weather” had caused cancellations.
On Oct. 10, the FAA said that “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 Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center is one of 20 air traffic control hubs across the country that keep planes moving between airports.
A local news station reported on a letter citing an FAA official, saying the center had “some staffing issues” late on Friday, Oct. 8, which were due to “[n]ormal approved leave” and “[c]ontrollers who received either their first or second dose of the vaccine and by policy are required to stay at home for (48) hours to self-monitor for side effects……thus creating some staffing issues.”
We reached out to the control center to confirm that this was the case, and we were referred to the FAA, which did not respond to our requests for comment.
“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, spokesman for the air traffic controllers’ union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, told us in an email.
“We are unaware of anything else that may have caused delays,” he said.
The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association weighed in on Oct. 10, saying in a statement: “There are false claims of job actions by Southwest Pilots currently gaining traction on social media and making their way into mainstream news. I can say with certainty that there are no work slowdowns or sickouts either related to the recent mandatory vaccine mandate or otherwise.”
Casey Murray, the union president, told the Dallas Morning News the following day, “We have the data from this weekend and our sick rates were exactly in line with where they were all summer with the same kind of operational disasters.”
Southwest’s chief operating officer, Mike Van de Ven, also said that the rate of sick calls was normal. “There’s no indication in any of our data that there is anything going on nefariously with respect to any type of activity like that,” Van de Ven told USA Today.
He also explained that Florida is “a critical node in our network,” with about half of Southwest’s planes flying through the state every day.
“So when we have a disruption, a significant disruption, in Florida, it tends to spread to our entire network,” Van de Ven reportedly said. “And that was the situation that happened to us on Friday.”
Southwest operates on a point-to-point model, which means that its planes fly between airports on a diffuse network, while other major carriers use a hub-and-spoke model, which means that planes return to a central airport after each flight.
“When you do that, you don’t sort of shuttle back and forth to a hub, it makes the recovery much more complicated because pilots are stuck all over the country. And you can’t just substitute one flight for another coming in and out of the hub,” Joe Schwieterman, a transportation expert and professor at DePaul University, told NPR in an Oct. 13 interview.
Also, the same problems that Southwest pointed to — weather and air traffic control issues — affect the industry as a whole, Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst, said in the same NPR report.
But, Harteveldt said, “while other airlines were able to snap back to their normal level of operation fairly quickly, Southwest has been struggling. And on Sunday, they just had a total meltdown.”
On Monday, as claims about the cancellations were flourishing, the FAA again took to Twitter to clarify: “To be clear: None of the information from Southwest, its pilots union, or the FAA indicates that this weekend’s cancellations were related to vaccine mandates.”
So, there’s no evidence that worker protests led to Southwest’s cancellations over the weekend, but there is evidence that a combination of other factors combined to cause logistical problems for the company.
Editor’s note: SciCheck’s COVID-19/Vaccination Project is made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation has no control over FactCheck.org’s editorial decisions, and the views expressed in our articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation. The goal of the project is to increase exposure to accurate information about COVID-19 and vaccines, while decreasing the impact of misinformation.
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