Southwest CEO Gary Kelly apologized to frustrated passengers during an appearance on Good Morning America on Tuesday, though he denied that the chaos was caused by pilots upset over the vaccine mandate
Southwest Airlines’ top executive says operations are ‘pretty well back to normal’ on Tuesday after the company was forced to cancel more than 2,300 flights over the holiday weekend which it claims was the result of air traffic control staffing problems in Florida.
Southwest CEO Gary Kelly apologized to frustrated passengers during an appearance on Good Morning America on Tuesday, though he denied that the chaos was caused by pilots upset over the vaccine mandate.
As of 9am Eastern Time on Tuesday, Southwest had cancelled 87 flights – or 2 percent of its daily operations – and delayed more than 240, according to the FlightAware tracking service.
The Federal Aviation Administration acknowledged delays in part of Florida on Friday but pushed back against Southwest’s air-traffic control explanation.
‘It just put the airline way behind on Friday,’ Kelly told GMA.
The FAA said Sunday that ‘some airlines’ were experiencing problems because of planes and crews being out of position.
Southwest was the only airline to report such a large percentage of canceled and delayed flights over the weekend. American Airlines cancelled just 63 flights as of Sunday while United Airlines had just nine cancellations.
When asked why his competitors didn’t face the same issues, Kelly said his airline was particularly affected by delays in Florida over the weekend because unlike other airlines, ‘over half of our fleet touches the State of Florida.’
‘We have a linear route system. We’re just different,’ Kelly told GMA.
Southwest is rare among the large airlines in that it uses the old-fashioned, point-to-point ‘linear’ route system that hauls people short distances with few connecting flights. The airline offers very few non-stop flights on longer routes.
Other large airlines use the ‘hub-and-spoke’ network in which companies rely on a central airport – or ‘hub’ – through which flights are routed. The ‘spokes’ are the routes that the planes take from the hub airport.
Most US airlines have at least one central airport that their flights go through in order to take passengers to select destinations, or ‘spoke’ routes. This allows the airline to cut costs by eliminating flights to non-popular destinations while ensuring flights to economically viable cities in their region are filled up.
After the federal government deregulated the airlines in 1978, most of the large carriers switched to a ‘hub-and-spoke’ network in order to cut down on half-empty flights between small markets that didn’t generate demand from travelers.
A Southwest passenger claims his baggage at General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee on Monday
Damian Ward of Washington, DC, sits in the Orlando International Airport with his family on Monday after flight delays kept them from returning home for two days
Southwest passengers check their tickets at General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee on Monday
A Southwest Airlines jet sits at a gate at Orlando International Airport in Orlando, Florida, on Monday
As of 9am Eastern Time on Tuesday, Southwest had cancelled 87 flights – or 2 percent of its daily operations – and delayed more than 240, according to the FlightAware tracking service
At the start of trading on Wall Street on Tuesday, shares of Southwest opened higher, rising by more than a half percent
According to its route map, Southwest flies to nine different destinations in Florida, including Panama City Beach, Tampa, Sarasota/Bradenton, Fort Myers/Naples, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Orlando, and Jacksonville.
A representative for the Federal Aviation Administration told DailyMail.com: ‘Due to a combination of severe weather, active military training in the airspace, and unexpected limited staff at the Jacksonville facility that handles high-altitude, en route traffic, the FAA took steps to safely manage air traffic the evening of Oct. 8. Normal operations returned at approximately 10pm.’
Kelly said Southwest and other airlines were affected by the disruption.
‘Everyone was impacted on Friday and everyone was impacted in a very big way.’
Kelly said it took Southwest longer to reset after the delays in Florida on Friday.
‘So there were no ATC (air traffic control) issues over the weekend, that’s absolutely true, but I think any industry expert knows that it takes several days – if you have that large of an impact on the operation – to get the airplanes where they need to be and then to match the crews up with that,’ he said.
Southwest canceled nearly 2,000 flights over the weekend and an additional 350 flights on Monday due to disruptions it blamed on bad weather and air traffic control issues.
Passengers wait to board a Southwest flight at the airport in El Paso, Texas, on Monday
Passengers at the Southwest terminal in El Paso, Texas wait to board a flight on Monday
Passengers check in for a Southwest Airlines flight at Orlando International Airport in Orlando on Monday
A woman claims her baggage at the arrival terminal at General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee on Monday
A woman and a child wait to check in at the Southwest terminal at General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee on Monday
Southwest on Monday cancelled more than 350 flights on Monday, though the company said things were ‘returning to normal’ on Tuesday
Monday’s cancellations amounted to 10 percent of Southwest’s schedule, and at least 1,400 other flights, or roughly 40 percent, were delayed, according to the FlightAware tracking service.
Shares of Southwest Airlines fell 4.2 percent.
‘As we complete efforts to stabilize our network, Southwest expects a more normal operation on Tuesday with approximately 90 system-wide cancellations out of the airline’s almost 3,300 flights scheduled for the day,’ the airline told DailyMail.com on Tuesday.
‘The Southwest Team appreciates the patience of Customers, and we extend our gratitude to our Employees who have worked tirelessly to stabilize our operation.
‘We’ve built a reputation around safe, reliable, friendly air travel, delivered with legendary Southwest Hospitality, and we’re sorry to anyone whose experience did not reflect that over the past several days.’
Kelly flatly denied rumors on social media that the delays were caused by pilots who walked out on the job to protest the company’s vaccine mandate.
‘There’s just no evidence of that,’ the CEO said.
‘Our people are working very hard. They’re doing a great job. I’m very proud of them.’
Kelly said he would have rather avoided the thorny issue of vaccine mandates, but the decision was out of his hands.
‘The vaccine mandate, obviously, is controversial. And it’s not anything that I wish for our company,’ he said, adding: ‘This is a government mandate.’
‘It’s a presidential order and we’re doing our best to comply with that according to the deadlines that have been set,’ he said.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson (left) on Monday night claimed the chaos was caused by pilots striking in protest against compulsory COVID-19 vaccines. Joshua Yoder (right), the co-founder of US Freedom Flyers, told Carlson that he and other pilots should not be forced to submit to an ‘illegal’ mandate
Carlson on Monday night insisted the airline was lying.
‘All of that is a lie, it’s not what happened,’ he said.
‘We’ve spoken to several people with direct knowledge of what actually did happen.
‘We can tell you the shutdown of Southwest Airlines over the weekend was a direct consequence, it was a reaction to, Joe Biden’s vaccine mandates.’
Carlson praised the supposed strikers for standing up for their beliefs.
Joshua Yoder, the co-founder of US Freedom Flyers, told Carlson that he and other pilots should not be forced to submit to an ‘illegal’ mandate. It is unclear which company Yoder works for.
‘My motive for resisting it is primarily religious for myself,’ Yoder told Fox News. ‘Among my friends I saw a need. Many of us don’t want to take [the COVID-19 vaccine].
‘People were being coerced, I believe in freedom and I’m here to support the freedom of my fellow employees and all people across this country.
‘I’m not going to take a mandate, I’m not going to be forced to do something I don’t believe in.’
Carlson’s comments echo those of Republicans such as Texas senator Ted Cruz, who tweeted: ‘Joe Biden’s illegal vaccine mandate at work! Suddenly, we’re short on pilots & air traffic controllers.’
Donald Trump Jr said: ‘The fact that thousands of Southwest employees walked off the job protesting the COVID vaccine mandate forcing the airline to cancel more than 1000 flights is not getting enough attention.
‘Media will make sure you don’t see it but keep watching, it won’t be the last protest!’
And Andy Biggs, a congressman for Arizona, tweeted: ‘I stand with #Southwest Airlines employees who are fighting against these mandates.
Casey Murray, president of the pilots’ association, said: ‘I can say with certainty that there are no work slowdowns or sickouts either related to the recent mandatory vaccine mandate or otherwise’
‘This isn’t about a vaccine, this is about freedom.’
The airline and unions both insisted Carlson and the Republicans were incorrect.
The widespread disruptions began shortly after the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, representing 9,000 pilots, asked a federal court on Friday to block the airline’s order that all employees get vaccinated.
The union argued that Southwest must negotiate over the issue because it could involve sick leave or disability if pilots have a reaction to the vaccine.
‘We are not anti-vaccination at all, but our pilots are extremely worried about how their medicals are going to be handled’ if they are unable to fly, union president Casey Murray told The Associated Press.
Murray said pilots had not staged a sickout because of the vaccine mandate.
He instead blamed the chaos of the past few days on Southwest’s operation, which he said has become ‘brittle’ and ‘cracks under the slightest pressure.’
He said the airline uses antiquated crew-scheduling technology that leads to cascading disruptions when flights are canceled in one part of its network.
Unions at both Southwest and American have also argued that management has been too slow to bring pilots back from leaves of absence that the airlines persuaded them to take during the pandemic, leaving them short-handed.
Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King said there was no evidence that would indicate the disruptions were caused by any sort of employee protest over vaccinations.
Some passengers were frustrated not just by flight delays but also the lack of a clear reason for them.
‘My concern is we had no explanation really that was, I feel, very legitimate or believable,’ said Brian Gesch of Cedar Grove, Wisconsin, who was traveling through Reagan Washington National Airport with his wife.
He doubted that weather and air traffic controllers were the real issue.
‘So we are frustrated and missing a day of work.’
Others were just concerned about getting home — any way they could.
Kent Moddelmog ended up driving 700 miles with his 14-year-old son from Phoenix to Dublin, California, after Southwest canceled their flight and he couldn’t find a flight on a competing airline that wasn’t exorbitantly priced.
‘I wasn’t going to drop $3,000 to get back,’ Moddelmog said.
The sales director for a consulting company said he flies Southwest dozens of times a year but had ‘never been in a situation like that.’
Savanthi Syth, an airlines analyst for Raymond James, said the weekend problems will increase Southwest’s costs and worsen the company’s strained relations with unions.
Southwest has struggled all summer with high numbers of delayed and canceled flights.
In August, it announced it was trimming its September schedule by 27 flights a day, or less than 1 percent, and 162 flights a day, or 4.5 percent of the schedule, from early October through Nov. 5.
The White House has pushed airlines to adopt vaccine mandates because they are federal contractors — they get paid by the Defense Department to operate flights, including those that carried Afghanistan refugees to the US this summer.
United Airlines was the first major US carrier to announce a vaccination requirement.
Southwest had remained silent even after President Joe Biden announced his order for federal contractors and large employers.
Finally last week, Southwest told employees they must be fully vaccinated by December 8 to keep their jobs.
Workers can ask to skip the shots for medical or religious reasons.