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Southwest airlines cancellations continue, as pilots’ union denies rumors of strikes over vaccine mandates

Southwest airlines cancellations continue, as pilots’ union denies rumors of strikes over vaccine mandates
Hundreds more Southwest flights have been canceled or delayed, as rumors of a staff “sickout” in protest over Covid-19 vaccine mandates persist. SouthWest’s union says no such action is taking place, but others aren’t convinced.

Some 355 Southwest Airlines flights were canceled and 571 delayed as of Monday morning, according to data from FlightAware. The cancellations and delays came after the airline, known for its budget fares, canceled around 2,000 flights over the weekend, leaving passengers stranded at airports throughout the US.

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Rumors suggested that the cancellations were a result of employees calling in sick en masse to protest against the company’s recently announced vaccine mandate, which gives employees until December 8 to get immunized against Covid-19 or face unemployment. The mandate was issued to comply with orders from the Biden administration.

The airline, however, blamed the weekend’s delays on “[air traffic control] issues and disruptive weather,” and the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) – a union representing some 10,000 Southwest pilots – said on Sunday that “there are no work slowdowns or sickouts either related to the recent mandatory vaccine mandate or otherwise.” The union said that it would not authorize such action, and sided with the airline in blaming “staffing at Jacksonville Center,” the country’s fourth-busiest area control center which oversees air traffic in parts of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and North Carolina.

The union said that while other airlines were relatively unaffected by the supposed staffing issue in Jacksonville Center, Southwest’s “operation has become brittle and subject to massive failures under the slightest pressure.”

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A number of aviation journalists reported over the weekend that there was indeed a “sickout” at Jacksonville Center. However, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) dismissed these reports, and Jacksonville Aviation Authority COO Tony Cugno told the JAA board of directors that staffing shortages were the result of a number of employees taking annual leave, coupled with others staying at home immediately after receiving their Covid-19 vaccination. 

Unverified reports suggest, however, that some air traffic control employees are bunking off work to protest against the mandates.

The explanations from Southwest and the authorities in Jacksonville haven’t tamped down rumors of discontent within the airline. For one thing, the SWAPA is suing the airline over its vaccine mandate, and filed a motion on Friday to have the mandate blocked. The union’s release also did not mention anything about anti-vaccine staff taking time off by using up vacation days, as some commentators online have suggested they’re doing.

Passengers affected by the weekend’s cancellations also reported that not only were flights not taking off, but Southwest’s airport desks were unstaffed. The airline has not yet explained this shortage of ground staff.

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What’s happening at Southwest is still unclear. However, walkouts have been reported in a number of other critical industries in recent days. Shipbuilders in Newport News – who are also required to get vaccinated by December 8 – staged a protest on Friday, and “unforeseen crew issues” have halted trains in the Northeast, though information in the mainstream media remains thin on the ground.

“The mainstream media is doing its best to keep a lid on the expanding rebellion against the vaccine mandates,” former US senator Ron Paul wrote on Monday, adding that strikes and walkouts threaten “to completely derail an already crumbling economy and to obliterate a deeply unpopular US president and administration.”

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