Citing air traffic control issues and bad weather, Southwest Airlines canceled more than 1,000 flights Sunday, 28% of its schedule, including dozens set to depart from San Diego International Airport.
The travel meltdown left hundreds stressed and scrambling, including Reno, Nevada-based pharmacist, Luna Ortiz, who was trying to return home Sunday after visiting family in Mexico for a week.
“I was trying to get to Reno tonight because I work tomorrow,” she said as she showed NBC 7 the text alert she received from the airline notifying her of the change of plans. “It's really frustrating. I wish they would tell you at least one day in advance, not today at 4:40 in the morning, when you can't even do anything and you're in a different country…they were able to give me a hotel room so I'm stuck here for a night.”
Geri Schat told NBC 7 she was glad she arrived at the airport in Kansas City two hours before her flight’s departure time, because that’s when she learned it was cancelled.
“I immediately got in line and I got very lucky, but there were people there that didn’t,” she said. “I was rebooked on another flight with one seat left that left an hour later, but otherwise I wouldn't have gotten here.”
Naria Jordan and her family spent the last ten days enjoying a Hawaiian vacation, and had several activities planned Sunday morning before their afternoon flight back to San Diego, but after learning of their flight cancellation, the family had to rush to the Honolulu airport for a 3 a.m. flight back home.
“It was very stressful because we had to deal with the car, we had to rearrange for pickup and all that so it was a lot of scrambling at the last moment, but thankfully it all came together,” Jordan said. “It was a great time and we're home safely and that's what matters.”
In a statement Saturday, Southwest said, “We experienced significant impact in the Florida airports [Friday] evening after an FAA-imposed air traffic management program was implemented due to weather and resulted in a large number of cancellations,” adding, “We are working hard behind the scenes to minimize challenges and fully recover the operation as we take care of displaced Crews and Customers as quickly as possible.”
Southwest apologized to travelers for long customer service waits and said in a statement it expected to get close to normal operations by Sunday, but disruptions worsened.
According to flight-tracking site FlightAware, the Dallas-based airline canceled 1,019 flights on Sunday after canceling 808 flights on Saturday—the airline attributing the initial problems to bad weather and an “FAA-imposed air traffic management program.”
The Federal Aviation Administration said there were a "few hours" of flight delays Friday afternoon because of severe weather and staffing issues at Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center, which controls airspace over a large swatch of the southeast U.S. but the FAA stated air traffic shortages haven't been reported since then.
Southwest's Sunday cancellations were the highest rate by far of the major U.S. airlines. According to FlightAware, the next highest rate was by Allegiant, which canceled 6% of its flights. American Airlines canceled 5% of its flights, while Spirit canceled 4% on Sunday.
The disparity between Southwest’s number of cancellations and other airlines fueled speculation on social media that employees were calling out sick, with some suggesting it was in protest of the airline’s recent Covid vaccine mandate after Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, the airline’s pilot union, asked a federal court in Dallas last week to temporarily block implementation of the mandate, saying it was a unilateral decision and instead, requires negotiations with the union.
Southwest said that was not the cause of the mass flight cancellations and in a statement Sunday, union said it is certain “that there are no work slowdowns or sickouts either related to the recent mandatory vaccine mandate or otherwise. Under the RLA, our Union is forbidden from taking job action to resolve labor disputes under these circumstances. SWAPA has not authorized, and will not condone, any job action.”
On Saturday, the union noted that Southwest Airline’s recent announcement that it will comply with the Biden administration’s requirement that federal contractors must mandate staff Covid vaccinations is contributing to distractions for aviators.
“Make no mistake about it — due to months of staffing issues and inefficient scheduling practices we have been operating at a higher than normal operational risk,” the union’s safety committee said.
It said reports of fatigue, which require pilots not to fly, are triple historic norms.
“All of these challenges have led to an added distraction in the cockpit,” it said. “This week’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate announcement by the Company only exacerbates the situation.