Many Republican politicians and right-wing pundits were thrilled to report that massive disruptions at Southwest Airlines over the past week were due to airline staff, fed up with a forthcoming employer vaccine mandate by Presidnet Joe Biden, staging an impromptu protest by walking off the job.
The only problem? No such spontaneous uprising of the silent majority has actually occurred.
Southwest Airlines chief operating officer Mike Van de Ven has since apologized for the delays, which began on early Friday, Oct. 8, after weather and air traffic control issues in Florida and quickly spiraled into a mess of over 2,000 canceled flights. According to NPR, some 20% of Southwest flights on Saturday and 40% of flights on Sunday were canceled, with countless others experiencing lengthy delays.
Prominent Republican politicians, including Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, as well as large segments of the conservative blogosphere, quickly jumped on the opportunity to claim airline staff were refusing to work due to their opposition to soon-to-be-implemented federal requirements that large employers and federal contractors ensure their staff are vaccinated or tested for the novel coronavirus once a week. While some pointed to a dispute between the airline and the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association union, which sought in court to block the company from implementing vaccines as a condition of employment while a separate labor lawsuit played out, others didn’t bother to back up the theory at all.
These claims were fishy for a number of reasons, foremost among them that there was virtually no credible sourcing for the claim, despite the fact anti-vaxxers never shut the hell up about their beliefs. As the Washington Post explained, there was instead plenty of evidence indicating the root cause was organizational issues at Southwest. Those include apparent weather issues in Florida that started a cascade of other messed-up flights and caused the airline to lose track of when and where it was reassigning flight crews, as well as understaffing courtesy of decreased hiring during the pandemic. Travel industry analyst and Atmosphere Research Group president Harvey Harteveldt told Insider that Southwest’s “very complex spider web-like point-to-point route network” helps explain why delays were widespread even in areas with no weather issues.
Southwest, the pilot’s union, and the Federal Aviation Administration all denied that any work stoppage was to blame, according to the Post. Slate reported that while the FAA did acknowledge a staffing shortfall at an air traffic control center in Florida, it also pointed to military exercises and the bad weather and said the original disruption only lasted a few hours. (The vast majority of air traffic controllers are employed by the FAA, not airlines.) The pilot’s union emphasized that Southwest had similar pilot sick rates last weekend as it did over the summer, as well as the airline’s unwillingness or inability to update outdated technical systems that reassign pilots during disruptions. As Slate noted, other airlines did not experience such serious delays, even though the Biden mandate has resulted in backlash from employees at competitors like American Airlines.
Here’s a roundup of some of the conservatives that tried, and pretty much failed, to turn this into a referendum on coronavirus vaccines.