Southwest Airlines cancelled more than 2,000 flights this weekend due to bad weather and air traffic control problems. Unsupported claims that vaccine mandates were responsible began to take root.
Conservative politicians and pundits including Ted Cruz, the Republican from Texas, claimed that flight disruptions were caused by pilots and air traffic controllers striking out or calling in sick to protest federal vaccination regulations.
That was denied by the airline, its pilots’ union, and Federal Aviation Administration.
Southwest spokesperson Chris Mainz stated Monday that the weekend challenges were not due to employee protests.
Yet, tweets claiming that airline employees were resisting medical tyranny and taking part in a “mass sicknessout” gathered thousands of shares. Several anonymous social media messages suggested that Southwest was concealing the true reason for the disruptions. According to Zignal Labs, the top 10 most-tweeted hashtags in relation to Southwest were #DoNotComply and #NoVaccineMandate.
Despite flights appearing to be closer to normal Tuesday, the Texas-based airline was still at the forefront of the latest front of the vaccine mandate culture conflict, its challenges exploited and exploited by those opposed to vaccine requirements.
The pilots’ union and the company have not provided any evidence supporting their explanations of why almost 2,400 flights were cancelled between Saturday and Monday. Southwest only stated that Friday’s bad weather in Florida and problems with air traffic control in Florida caused a series of failures, resulting in pilots and planes being unable to take off.
Sunday saw the airline cancel more than 1,100 flights or 30% of its scheduled flights. According to FlightAware, the airline had cancelled fewer than 100 flights or 2% of its schedule by Tuesday evening. However, more than 1,000 flights were delayed.
CNBC’s CEO Gary Kelly stated Tuesday that “when you get behind it only takes several days to catch-up.” “We were significantly behind Friday.”
All summer, Southwest was plagued by delays and cancellations. Employees were told Sunday by a senior executive that Southwest is still short of staff and may need to cut flights in November or December.
The union and the company have refused to disclose how many employees were absent during the crisis, despite repeated requests. Although they claimed that absentees were comparable to summer weekends, numbers have not been provided to back that claim. It is not known how many Southwest pilots have not been vaccinated.
Casey Murray, president and CEO of Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, stated that “we don’t know” and that the company doesn’t either.
In the meantime, prominent Conservative politicians and pundits have speculated. While many believed the theory was unfounded, few details or examples of employees protesting the vaccine were provided.
Cruz tweeted Sunday, “Joe Biden’s illegal vaccine mandate at Work!” “Suddenly, there’s a shortage of pilots and air traffic controllers. #ThanksJoe
In a second tweet, the Republican senator said Monday that he had met with pilot union leaders last week and expressed deep concern about vaccine mandates. A spokesperson for Southwest pilots stated that no one from the union had spoken to Cruz. Cruz’s spokesperson did not respond to emailed questions by The Associated Press asking if Cruz had any knowledge about pilots and air traffic controllers who were skipping work.
The rumors were also shared by U.S. Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Andy Biggs, a Republican U.S. Rep. from Arizona.
According to Rachel Moran (a University of Washington misinformation scholar), vague, familiar-looking “friend of friends” stories can be dangerous forms of misinformation. They “feel like insider info being shared by individuals directly affected in the action.”
Similar claims were made online in August when users of social media falsely claimed that Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport flight cancellations and delays were due to vaccine mandates. False internet rumors circulated in September that 40% of General Dynamics employees had rejected the vaccine and threatened to quit.
Some Twitter users linked Southwest’s flight problems with news that the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association had requested a federal judge to block the airline from implementing the vaccine mandate. According to federal labor law, Southwest must negotiate with the union before making any changes that affect working conditions. The judge has yet to rule.
When asked Tuesday by the White House to respond to claims that vaccine mandates had reduced the workforce and caused supply-chain disruptions and decreased productivity, Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, took aim at Cruz, sarcastically calling him a “world-renowned travel, business and health expert” before supporting Biden’s policy.
Psaki stated that there had been some hubbub about Southwest Airlines in the past few days. “We now know some of those claims are false, and the issues had nothing to do with vaccine mandates.
Biden’s order is still being finalized. It would require all employers employing 100 or more employees to be vaccinated and tested for COVID-19 every week. Because airlines perform emergency flights for the Defense Department, they are considered government contractors. This makes it more difficult for airlines to meet the requirements of the Biden order. They must receive mandatory vaccinations and there is no option to opt out.
Southwest, following the example of other airlines, told its employees last week it would require that they be immunized by December 8.
According to Moran, a misinformation scholar at Washington University, some employees of large corporations and airlines have voiced their opposition to vaccines. However, social media comments have created an exaggerated sense of dissent.
Moran stated that “in reality, it’s only a very small number of people protesting employment-based mandates to the vaccine.” People are more susceptible to misinformation during times of crisis. These supply-chain delays and labor shortages either create a real crisis sense or are used by misinformation spreaders as a way to make it seem like we are headed towards crisis.