SouthWest Airlines cancels over 1,800 flights in 2 days amid rumours of employee ‘sickout’ due to Covid-19 vaccine mandate

Thousands of passengers that booked Southwest Airlines flights for their weekend travel have been stranded in the US airports after the airline cancelled the flights amid reports of a protest against the vaccine mandate.

SouthWest, known for its relatively low prices, cancelled at least 1,018 flights on Sunday, that is in addition to 808 flights that were cancelled on Saturday, US Today reported, citing flight tracking data. 

In a statement on Saturday, SouthWest blamed the abnormal rate of cancellations on air traffic control issues and “disruptive weather,” adding that they were working to “recover” the operation.

However, the situation appeared to have only worsened on Sunday, with SouthWest account on Twitter being inundated by complaints from the disgruntled passengers claiming that flights had been cancelled out of the blue and that the airline’s employees were nowhere to be seen.

“Flight cancelled out of nowhere and now NO ONE is seen at the front desks to assist customers,” actor Kevin Michael Martin complained.

Another passenger, who has been apparently stranded at a Dallas, Texas, airport, posted a photo of a long line of people, tweeting: “Ticket agent counter before security is a mess,” to which SouthWest responded by insisting that the chaos was merely a result of “ATC issue and disruptive weather.” “Thanks for hanging in there with us today,” SouthWest said.

Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), which represents some 10,000 pilots, also poured cold water on the speculations of an ongoing strike, saying on Sunday that the group was “focused on the safety of our crews, passengers, and overcoming operational challenges, not unofficial job actions.”

However, media citing “airline sources” have reported that air traffic controllers were staging a mass “sickout” or walkout at the federal air traffic control center in Hilliard, Florida, over mandatory vaccinations. The reported protest caused “ripple effect” paralyzing SouthWest operations, Leland Vittert, national correspondent for NewsNation, reported on Twitter.

Responding to the rumours of a mass walkout on Sunday afternoon, The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) dismissed the report, insisting that “no FAA air traffic staffing shortages have been reported since Friday.” “Flight delays and cancellations occurred for a few hours Friday afternoon due to widespread severe weather, military training and limited staffing in one area of the Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center," the agency said.

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SouthWest Airlines became one of the last major US air carriers to introduce a vaccine mandate for its employees last Monday after the company was reportedly pressured by White House coronavirus adviser Jeffrey Zients to comply with President Joe Biden’s vaccination order. Some 56,000 SouthWest employees have until December 8 to get vaccinated if they want to keep their jobs.

Biden's order states that companies with over 100 employees must either require the workers to get the Covid-19 jab or test weekly for the virus.

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