Southwest Airlines canceled more than 1,000 flights nationwide Sunday as it tried desperately to recover from disruptive weather in Florida Friday and fulfill an ambitious schedule complicated by ongoing staffing shortages.
Many airports with a large Southwest presence saw dozens of flights canceled, including airports in Denver, Dallas, Baltimore, Houston, Las Vegas and Chicago while the airline tried to reposition crews and airplanes.
The disruptions followed Dallas-based Southwest canceling more than 800 flights on Saturday, according to Flightaware.com. But the biggest struggle for Southwest came Sunday, the day it was running the most scheduled flights since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to scheduling data from Diio by Cirium. Another 622 Southwest flights were delayed. Saturday was the beginning of fall break for many school districts in the Sun Belt so airlines were expecting an uptick in travel.
“We experienced weather challenges in our Florida airports at the beginning of the weekend, challenges that were compounded by unexpected air traffic control issues in the same region, triggering delays and prompting significant cancellations for us beginning Friday evening,” said a statement from Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins.
“We’ve continued diligent work throughout the weekend to reset our operation with a focus on getting aircraft and crews repositioned to take care of our customers. With fewer frequencies between cities in our current schedule, recovering during operational challenges is more difficult and prolonged.”
No other airlines reported widespread delays or cancellation issues.
The Federal Aviation Administration, however, said it had staffing issues at one facility in Jacksonville, that combined with military training and “widespread severe weather” to create delays and cancellations.
It was a familiar pattern that has repeated itself over and over again at various airlines starting in late spring, when air traffic demand increased quickly and airlines struggled to ramp up their operations to meet the challenge.
Disruptions, such as weather, cause pilots, flight attendants and planes to be out of place for meeting subsequent flight schedules. Other crew members reach their maximum flying hour limits, meaning new crews need to be called in to fly airplanes.
A few hundred delays and cancellations can grow into thousands over a weekend.
Unions for pilots and flight attendants have blamed the airlines for spreading operations too thin. Social media posts from stranded travelers were quick to blame the problems on the airline’s recently announced vaccine mandate.
The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, which has sued the airline over the treatment of pilots in recent months, said pilots were not intentionally causing any disruption to retaliate over the airline mandating vaccination for all employees to comply with federal government rules.
“SWAPA is aware of operational difficulties affecting Southwest Airlines today due to a number of issues, but we can say with confidence that our pilots are not participating in any official or unofficial job actions,” the union said in a statement.
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In recent months, Fort Worth-based American Airlines and Spirit Airlines also experienced similar operational problems and it sometimes took as long as a week for the airlines to get enough planes and crew members back in place to stop the fallout.
On Sunday, Alan Kasher, Southwest’s executive vice president of daily operations, sent a memo to employees apologizing for the operational problems.
“I’m sorry for the struggles that you and our customers are experiencing, once again,” Kasher said in the memo. “Although we were staffed for the weekend, we could not anticipate the significant disruption that was created from unexpected (air traffic control) issues and bad weather across our Florida stations.
“As we know, irregular operations disrupt even the best plans and can make it difficult to recover the operation quickly. And as we’ve seen before, an unexpected number of delays ultimately leads to a staffing shortage, and at times, mandatory overtime because of the longer operating day.”
Just last month, Robert Jordan, Southwest’s incoming CEO, said the company plans to hire another 8,000 workers next year on top of the 5,000 it’s hoping to hire before this holiday season as the carrier looks to rebuild its network after the COVID-19 pandemic,