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Unsupported sickout claims take flight amid Southwest woes

Unsupported sickout claims take flight amid Southwest woes

Southwest Airlines canceled more than 2,000 flights over the weekend, citing bad weather and air traffic control issues, and unsupported claims blaming vaccine mandates began to surface.

Conservative politicians and pundits, including Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, claimed the flight disruptions resulted from pilots and air traffic controllers walking off their jobs or calling in sick to protest federal vaccination requirements.

The airline, its pilots union, and the Federal Aviation Administration denied the assertion.

Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz said Monday that the weekend challenges were not a result of Southwest workers demonstrating.

Still, tweets claiming airline employees were standing up to medical tyranny and participating in a mass sickout drew thousands of followers. Southwest was hiding the real reason for its delays, according to vague and anonymous tweets on social media. According to a report from media intelligence firm Zignal Labs, anti-vaccine rallying cries such as #DoNotComply, #NoVaccineMandate, and #HoldTheLine were among the 10 most popular hashtags tweeted in connection to Southwest over the weekend.

Even as flights reopened on Tuesday, the Texas-based airline remained at the forefront of the latest front in the vaccine mandate culture war, its challenges exploited by vaccine opponents.

From Saturday through Monday, nearly 2,400 flights were canceled, but neither the company nor its pilots' union has provided evidence to support their explanations. Southwest has only stated that bad weather and air traffic control problems in Florida on Friday triggered cascading failures in which planes and pilots were trapped out of position for their next flight.

On Sunday, the airline cancelled more than 1,100 flights, or 30% of its schedule, bringing the situation to a peak. According to tracking service FlightAware, it had canceled fewer than 100 flights, or 2% of its schedule, while more than 1,000 flights were delayed.

CEO Gary Kelly told CNBC on Tuesday that when you get behind, it only takes several days to catch up. On Friday, we were significantly behind, he added.

The Southwest had to deal with delays and cancellations throughout the summer. A senior executive told employees Sunday that the airline is still understaffed and that it may need to reduce flights in November and December.

Despite repeated requests, the business and the union have declined to say how many workers missed work during the crisis. They have said that absentee rates were comparable to those over a typical summer weekend, but they haven't released any data to support that claim. It is also unclear how many Southwest pilots aren't vaccinated.

The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association's president, Casey Murray, said, "We don't know, and the company doesn'' not know."

Meanwhile, speculation from prominent conservative politicians and pundits has flooded into the void. Many endorsed the unsubstantiated theory, but few gave details, facts, or examples of workers walking off the job to protest the vaccine.

Joe Bidens illegal vaccine mandate at work! Cruz tweeted Sunday. Suddenly, were short on pilots & air traffic controllers. #ThanksJoe.

The Republican senator said in another tweet Monday that he met with pilot union leaders last week who expressed deep concern about the vaccination mandates. A Southwest pilots spokeswoman said no one at the union had spoken to Cruz. A Cruz spokesperson did not immediately respond to emails from The Associated Press asking whether the Republican senator had first-hand experience of pilots or air traffic controllers skipping work.

Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona and Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, the Republican U.S., posted the rumor on social media, but without providing any evidence.

According to Rachel Moran, a misinformation researcher at the University of Washington, vague, familiar-looking friend of he friend stories are viewed as dangerous form of misrepresentation because they feel like insider information being shared by individuals directly involved in the action.

Similar unsupported claims surfaced on social media in August, when users falsely claimed that flight delays and cancellations out of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport were the result of vaccine mandates. 40% of workers at defense firm General Dynamics had declined the vaccine and threatened to quit in September, according to false internet reports.

Several Twitter users attributed Southwest's flight problems to the fact that the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association had asked a federal judge in Dallas to block the airline'' vaccination ban on Friday. Southwest must first negotiate with the union before making changes to working conditions, according to the labor union. The judge has yet to rule.

Asked on Tuesday to respond to claims that vaccine mandates have reduced the workforce and contributed to supply-chain disruptions, White House press secretary Jen Psaki took a jab at Cruz, sarcastically labeling him before defending Bidens position.

I know there was a little buzz about Southwest Airlines during the last few days, said Psaki. Now we understand that some of those claims were absolutely false and that the issues were in no way linked to vaccine mandates, the report concluded.

Bidens order, which is still being finalized, would require employers with 100 or more workers to be vaccinated or tested weekly for COVID-19. Airlines, on the other hand, are government contractors because they perform work such as emergency flights for the Defense Department that transported Afghan refugees to the United States in August. That makes airlines subject to a more stringent standard under the Biden order: mandatory vaccinations with no opt-out for getting tested.

Southwest said last week that it will require its employees to be vaccinated by Dec. 8. Following the example of other airlines, Southwest told workers last weekend that they must be immunized by that date.

While some employees at airlines and other major businesses have spoken out against vaccine requirements, according to Moran, a misinformation expert at the University of Washington, comments on social media have inflated the dissent.

In reality, its quite a few individuals who are voicing their opposition to employment-based mandates for the vaccine, Moran said. People are more vulnerable to misinformation in times of crisis, and labor shortages and supply-chain delays either create a real sense of panic or are exploited by misrepresentation spreaders to make it seem as though we are heading toward crisis.


Swenson was in New York for a report. Amanda Seitz of Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this article. David Koenig can be reached at

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