Southwest cancels mass flights, fights with union over vax mandate. What does this mean for holiday travelers?

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Bennett Purser

Southwest Airlines has canceled nearly 2500 flights since Friday. The company pointed to bad weather in Florida, where they have a giant operation, and the slowing down of traffic by the Federal Aviation Administration, according to Leslie Josephs, airline industry reporter for CNBC. 

“That sort of set off this cascade of other delays and cancellations. Planes were out of place, which also means that the crews are not getting to where they need to go for their next assignment. The plane is not getting to where it needs to go to pick up the next round of passengers … and so forth.” 

She says the company is operating with very thin staffing and realizes it needs to make changes quickly. 

To understand the cause of staffing shortages, Josephs says to look to 2020, when COVID and quarantines slashed demand for travel, so airlines sought to save money by urging employees to take leaves of absence, outright buyouts, and early retirements. 

“Thousands of people took them up on this. We gave airlines $54 billion in taxpayer aid so that they were prohibited from furloughing or laying off workers. So that protected the jobs, but they were still able to use these voluntary measures. So they reduced staff, and then we got vaccines, and travel demand bounced back. And they were not ready for the number of people that were traveling this summer.”

She says that Southwest knows it needs to hire all kinds of positions, but that’s not happening fast enough. Plus, pilots and flight attendants can only work a certain number of hours per day under federal rules (to avoid too much fatigue). 

Meanwhile, the airline is trying to comply with a federal vaccine mandate, while some pilots don’t want to be vaccinated. 

“The Southwest pilots’ labor union is kind of battling with the company over the mandate. And they filed a motion in Dallas in federal court last week, saying that ... this is something that needs to be negotiated with the union, the company cannot come in and mandate vaccines,” Josephs says.

Southwest, American, and Delta have encouraged — not required — their employees to be inoculated, she says. “Now this mandate is coming down. So American and Southwest, also JetBlue and Alaska, have recently told employees that you need to be vaccinated, we are federal contractors, and this is out of our hands.” 

She points out that Delta will charge unvaccinated employees an extra $200 per month for insurance starting November 1. 

If you want to fly for the holidays, Josephs recommends avoiding the peak days, such as the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. She says you should choose the first flight out for the day too. 

“When you have disruptions, you don't want to be on a 6 p.m. flight because you have a higher chance of getting bumped to the next day, you have a higher chance of missing your connection, [and] doing an overnight in some city that you don't want to be in, where there’s not a lot of hotel rooms.”