Southwest Airlines said it is climbing out of the operational meltdown on Monday, after cancelling close to 2,000 flights in a three-day period starting on Saturday. The carrier said a combination of bad weather, air traffic control issues, and larger staffing problems caused the cancellations, which rippled through its network over the weekend, leaving tens of thousands of passengers stranded all over the country.
But one thing both the airline and its pilots union, the Southwest Airline Pilots Association (SWAPA), agreed on is that a pilot walkout was in no way responsible for the meltdown. Conservative media over the weekend suggested that SWAPA, upset about the carrier’s vaccine mandates, was calling in sick to snarl the airline. “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,” the union said in a statement. “Our pilots will continue to overcome [Southwest] management’s poor planning, as well as any external operational challenges, and remain the most productive pilots in the world.”
The pilot sickout storyline became a fixture on right-wing media and on Twitter after SWAPA sought a temporary restraining order to stop the vaccine mandate last week. Southwest, which is a federal contractor through its participation in the Defense Department’s Civil Reserve Air Fleet, said it had to comply with the Biden administration’s vaccine requirements for federal employees. The pilots union balked, however. The union is not opposed to vaccinations, it said, but it believes that the issue should have been negotiated with pilots. Southwest’s mandate “ignores our [collective bargaining agreement],” adding, “We will not sit idly by while the company blatantly ignores our legal right to represent [pilots].”
SWAPA’s views reflect those of the national Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which supports vaccines but believes mandates should be negotiated with pilots, possibly in exchange for other benefits.
Southwest blamed its flight cancellations on bad weather and air traffic control problems in Florida, but the Federal Aviation Administration almost immediately said it had no staffing issues at its facilities and weather did not affect other airlines in anything approaching the magnitude Southwest reported.
Southwest was fully staffed to handle Columbus Day holiday travel, Executive Vice President of Daily Operations Alan Kasher said in a memo to employees, but it did not have the reserve staff on hand to staff for unforeseen weather disruptions. “And as we’ve seen before, an unexpected number of delays ultimately leads to a staffing shortage, and at times, mandatory overtime because of the longer operating day,” he wrote in the memo. “Although we’ve made schedule adjustments leading into the fall, our route system has not fully recovered— that will take time.”
Kasher surfaces to problems that plague the industry as it tries to climb out of the pandemic. First, Southwest, like most airlines, has slashed its schedule and network. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the carrier could have resolved an operational snafu by putting passengers on later flights to their final destinations. With fewer flights, that option did not exist. And this is expected to continue. In a recent regulatory filing, Southwest trimmed the number of flights it will operate in the fourth quarter, given ongoing softness of demand and to grapple with operational difficulties. “We still find ourselves with fewer frequencies between major airports to reroute delayed or cancelled customers,” Kasher said in his memo.
The second issue Kasher referred to is one that affects the economy more broadly: Staffing shortages. Southwest did not furlough any employees during the pandemic, but it offered voluntary buyouts and extended leaves of absence in reaction to the collapse of demand earlier in the pandemic. As demand begins to return, the carrier is struggling to fill thousands of positions, competing with the likes of Amazon for entry-level workers. Incoming CEO Bob Jordan said Southwest now gets about 14 applications for every open position, compared with more than 40 before the pandemic. When background checks and eligibility are factored in, the pool of available workers shrinks even further. And, entry-level airline work is no picnic: As Sun Country CEO Jude Bricker recently pointed out, even at the best of times it’s a tough sell to work outside in Minneapolis in January.
Cowen & Co. analyst Helane Becker noted that this issue is industry-wide. Cargo-only airlines saw job growth during the pandemic, as demand for freight outstripped all expectations. But even they struggle with staffing, as FedEx recently said when it reported that it has to divert 600,000 packages a day due to worker shortages. When cargo airlines are excluded, the number of airline employees has fallen by more than 27 percent — more than 160,000 jobs — since March 2020.
American Airlines, Spirit Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and Southwest all struggled at various times in recent months with staff shortages, resulting in thousands of cancelled flights as the effects rippled through their networks. The issue is one with no easy solution. Many airline employees — pilots, flight attendants, and maintenance technicians included — are highly trained and require licenses to do their jobs. Replacing those workers is not easy and takes time, and airlines are competing not just among themselves but with other industries that could pay more for those skills.
Southwest’s labor woes compounded over the weekend when crews bumped up against their federal duty-time limits, with no reserve crews to relieve them. The airline was not able to source hotel rooms for many crew members, resulting in further delays. “These challenges put pressure on our crew member regulatory and contractual limits, which in turn becomes a staffing challenge — leading to higher than expected cancellations,” Kasher said.
Southwest is slowly returning to normal. “Today’s operation has vastly improved from the weekend, with a much smaller number of cancellations linked to our weekend recovery efforts,” a spokesman for the airline said.