Southwest Airlines debacle is symptomatic of bigger pandemic problems

Southwest Airlines debacle is symptomatic of bigger pandemic problems
© Greg Nash

Southwest Airlines had more than 2,000 flight cancellations last week. There is nothing to indicate that such cancellations will permanently stop, and they may even bleed into the upcoming busy travel holiday season, with travelers across the nation inconvenienced.

Southwest management attributed the onslaught of flight cancellations to air traffic control issues and weather problems. Although these factors may have contributed to such cancellations, they are unlikely to have been the primary cause, since no other airlines experienced such widespread flight disruptions during the same period. 

The key driver for such cancellations is likely the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for its employees. Southwest employees are expressing their concern in droves by simultaneously and strategically using their sick time benefits.

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Southwest has built a reputation on taking care of its employees, which has resulted in unprecedented profitability during the most challenging economic downturns, a record that none of the other legacy airlines like American, Delta and United have been able to match.

Some employees believe that the vaccine mandate is in direct contradiction to Southwest’s internal practice of "employees first, customers second.” If Southwest adhered to this policy, employees may think that the company would find a workable solution to meet their wishes. Clearly, some employees believe that not showing up for work is preferable to being subject to a top-down federal mandate that they believe is not in their best interests.

There are several factors that make Southwest particularly vulnerable to widespread employee no-shows. 

Southwest does not employ a hub-and-spoke system like the other legacy airlines. That means their schedule is designed around point-to-point flights. As such, there are fewer flight alternatives with flight cancellations for any reason. It also makes it more difficult to fill pilot and flight attendant requirements when such people call in sick or become unavailable on short notice. This makes Southwest more vulnerable to staffing shortages than the other legacy airlines, who can move pilots and flight attendants around with greater ease and facility. 

Given that Southwest has around 55,000 employees, if each flight cancelled involved just two employees scheduled to cover three flights, then that translates into just over 2 percent of their employees being unavailable. This illustrate how vulnerable the airline is to organized worker shortages even among a small group of potentially disgruntled employees.

Southwest falls under President Biden’s vaccination mandate, so they must abide by it: requiring that employees for companies with more than 100 workers get vaccinated. Although some employees under this mandate can opt for weekly COVID-19  testing in lieu of vaccination, federal contractors — like airlines — cannot.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbot (R) issued a ban to stop the implementation of vaccine mandates. The Southwest Pilot Union is also fighting any mandates for their members. However, both Southwest and American Airlines, which are both based out of Dallas will continue to require all their employees to abide by the federal vaccine mandate.

Southwest employees not showing up for work is effectively a strike. Using sick time benefits means that employees can be paid while coordinating their efforts to send a message about vaccination. Such a systematic process can be used periodically to communicate their displeasure with any company policy, including the current vaccine mandate. 

Southwest’s company policy seemingly does everything to keep its employees happy. When confronted with a federal mandate that a minority of (but vociferous) employees is unhappy with, it became vulnerable to flight disruptions and cancellations that other airlines could better buffer. 

The lesson learned from this is that a company is only as strong as its people, and when some of them revolt, there are consequences.

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The biggest loser in this ordeal are the customers who became innocent victims of the actions of a few. Given the alternatives available in the vaccine mandate, these employees may wish to rethink their strategy moving forward. If a sufficient number of customers ditch Southwest for seemingly more reliable competitors, they may find themselves without a job to call in sick to. Then they will get their wish and no longer require vaccination. 

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a founder professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public health policy. His research provided the technical foundations for TSA PreCheck. 

This piece has been updated to reflect vaccination mandates for federal contractors.