Southwest Airlines has experienced a substantial operational meltdown in the last week. Air Traffic Control, weather, and even pilots have been suggested as the cause but the answer eludes.
Southwest Operational Issues Affect More Than 1,200 Flights
On Saturday (October 9th, 2021), Flight Aware had reported 568 canceled Southwest Airlines flights and 711 delayed flights. Halfway through Sunday, October 10th, the carrier has registered another 1,006 cancellations and 204 delays. Southwest accounts for 27% of all canceled flights worldwide today, no small feat.
The list of top affected airports was a who’s who of Southwest hubs:
- DEN Denver
- BWI Baltimore/Washington
- LAS Las Vegas
- MDW Chicago
- HOU Houston
- PHX Phoenix
- MCO Orlando
- STL St. Louis
- BNA Nashville
- AUS Austin
The delays were felt throughout the network at nearly every Southwest city.
Air Traffic Control (ATC) Blamed
Southwest Airlines responded to USA Today that Air Traffic Control was too blame as well as severe weather.
“Air Traffic Control (ATC) issues and disruptive weather have resulted in a high volume of cancellations throughout the weekend as we work to recover our operation. We appreciate your patience as we accommodate affected Customers as quickly as possible,” Southwest said in an emailed statement.
In isolated evaluations I was able to conduct over the last few days, traffic passing certain points like Jacksonville Center (controlling high altitude airspace above the state, mostly from the East Coast) seemed to be part of the bottleneck and this was confirmed by FAA officials.
A representative for the Federal Aviation Administration told Action News Jax, “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 10 p.m.”
Action News Jax Chief Meteorologist Mike Buresh says the weather was clear in the area long before the delays were reported.
”It certainly doesn’t seem like things are back to normal,” Hill said. “There’s tons of flights canceled still even [Saturday] so I don’t really know what’s going on.”
Reduced staff levels, military operations, and some weather may have explained some of the delays into Florida passing through Jacksonville Center, but it’s shocking that the traffic couldn’t be resolved around these events.
Weather May Be A Cause For Southwest Knockdown Delays
Severe storms went through Florida causing some passengers to report substantial turbulence. This, of course, wasn’t exclusively a Southwest Airlines issue as several flights departing Miami on Friday night were diverted back to Miami or other airports south of Jacksonville. Had the issue only been ATC, those flights could have simply been re-routed instead of returning to their departure points and wasting valuable time, money, and fuel.
Weather seems like a legitimate concern for some of the issues. Much of the domestic leisure travel at the moment (especially around weekends) heads to Florida so planes experiencing cancellations or weather delays could have a knockdown effect on other flights. For example, a plane that departed BWI (Baltimore) for MCO (Orlando) but was delayed due to weather could then cause a delay from Kansas City to Denver, as the aircraft was then scheduled to fly from Orlando to Kansas City before moving onward to Denver.
If a significant portion of the system is headed into or out of a weather impaired region, that could cause Southwest to delay and cancel flights for bad weather even in markets that are nowhere near the weather event. Spirit Airlines had an issue with this in August that crippled the carrier for several days.
Southwest passengers are urged to check their flight status prior to heading to the airport.
Pilots Being Blamed Too
Some have also speculated that this was the result of labor action. Surely, Southwest could have resolved most of the issues, be them weather or ATC several days in, so there must be another explanation. As you might have suspected, Southwest recently moved to require crews to become vaccinated along with several other carriers.
Usually, this theory would be the result of politically motivated crackpots linking together unrelated events for why the carrier can’t recover quickly, however, Southwest pilots announced they sought to block the move and unlike the other carriers, the pilot’s union, SWAPA is the filing party.
The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), a union, has filed a lawsuit against SWA over its vaccine mandate, The Dallas Morning News reported. SWAPA has authorized its members to demonstrate against the mandate and strenuous working conditions during the pandemic. The union has also authorized $1 million in support of those protests, which could begin this fall, SWAPA president Casey Murray said.
A union for SWA mechanics has also issued a statement opposing the mandate on contractual grounds, the publication added.
However, the union has been clear that there is no organized labor action at this time:
Southwest did not comment on speculations circulating online claiming the issues might be related to labor action due to vaccine mandates.
A spokesperson for the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association told The Arizona Republic that the organization was unaware of any labor-related issues and would not condone any sort of work stoppage.
What is the true cause for Southwest Airlines’ significant flight disruptions and what is the remedy? If it was solely the air traffic control issue or weather delays, those should be resolved by now given the substantial size of Southwest’s operation (largest domestic carrier.) There’s no question that this was a factor, as I mentioned other carriers had flights diverted due to weather as well. However, Southwest canceling large amounts of flights this week would point to a larger issue, one yet to be revealed as the other two culprits are eliminated.
What do you think? Was it a perfect storm for Southwest Airlines with substantial traffic into a problematic ATC situation? Was weather to blame? Are pilots using organized action against Southwest? Is it something else entirely?