By Zachary Stieber
Southwest Airlines late Monday extended an apology to customers and employees for mass flight cancellations the company has blamed on the weather.
Southwest canceled about 2,000 flights over the weekend and axed hundreds more on Oct. 11. Early Tuesday, 87 flights, or 2 percent of the scheduled flights, were cancelled, with another 5 percent delayed, according to data from FlightAware.
“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. 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,” Southwest said in a statement.
“Southwest Teams have been working diligently to restore stability to the network, and we are experiencing less disruptions on Monday. We hope to restore our full schedule as soon as possible.”
The company said it was offering “a tremendous apology” for the mass cancellations.
It also continued to deny reports on social media that the disruptions stemmed from pilots calling out sick to protest against the recently announced COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
“The operational challenges were not a result of Southwest employee demonstrations,” Southwest said.
“Their trips are disrupted. They have unscheduled overnights. They have all the same types of impacts that our customers experience. So if anything, I think they’ve been heroes through this trying to operate. There is absolutely no evidence of any kind of job action,” incoming CEO Bob Jordan told the Dallas Morning News.
The union representing Southwest Airlines pilots also denied allegations of a mass “sickout.”
“I can say with certainty that there are no work slowdowns or sickouts either related to the recent mandatory vaccine mandate or otherwise,” the union said in an Oct. 10 statement. It blamed Southwest for alleged mismanagement, noting that other airlines didn’t appear to be suffering from similar problems.
Still, some messaging problems cropped up. The Dallas-based airline’s president, Mike Van de Ven, told workers late Sunday that there were issues with staffing, seemingly undercutting the public stances from the airline and its union, media outlets reported.
Southwest declined to comment on the reports.
The union has also sued the company over its mandate, though the group says it’s not related to the flight problems.
Shares for the company dropped to $51.88 premarket Tuesday, down from $53.92 early Monday and several dollars from most days the week prior.
Jacksonville Aviation Authority Chief Operating Officer Tony Cugno said that there were some staffing issues at Jacksonville International Airport leading into the weekend. Those issues stemmed from normal approved leave and air traffic controllers who received the COVID-19 vaccine and are required to stay at home for 48 hours to self-monitor for side effects.
The Federal Aviation Administration said Sunday air traffic staffing shortages had not been reported since Friday. Flight delays and cancellations happened “due to widespread severe weather, military training, and limited staffing,” it said, but only “for a few hours.”
“Some airlines continue to experience scheduling challenges due to aircraft and crews being out of place,” the agency said. On Monday, it added, “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.”
Jordan told the News that the situation improved on Monday and he foresaw it getting even better on Tuesday before a full recovery on Wednesday.
“A big piece of this too is trying to get the aircraft and the crews back together—what I would call crew margin. We’re still continuing to deal with staffing issues. That was a piece of this but it wasn’t the largest part of this,” he said. “But the tighter the crew margin is and the staffing margin, the smaller amount of room you have to manage through a problem. So we just need to keep going after staffing and getting crew margins and our overall employee margin back. You’ve heard about the tremendous focus on staffing from us and that’s why.”
During a forum last week, Jordan said Southwest planned to hire about 8,000 workers in 2022, in addition to 5,000 before the end of the year.
Jack Phillips contributed to this report.