Southwest CEO says Biden forced Covid vaccine mandate on them after days of flight chaos

By Gustaf Kilander and Graeme Massie
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Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly has said that a vaccine mandate has been forced on the company by the Biden administration but that the demand for staff to get the shots has had “zero” effect on delays and cancellations in recent days.

Mr Kelly told CNBC that he’s “never been in favour of corporations imposing that kind of a mandate – I’m not in favour of that, never have been. But the executive order from President Biden mandates that all federal employees and then all federal contractors, which covers all the major airlines, have to have a [vaccine mandate] in place by December the 8th, so we’re working through that”.

The airline CEO said the vaccine mandate has made “zero” contribution to the staggering number of cancelled flights over the weekend.

“We look at all our employee behaviour in terms of absenteeism, in terms of people volunteering to come in and pick up what’s referred to as ‘open time’ and they’re all very normal,” Mr Kelly said. “The president of our pilots’ union has been out talking to the media confirming all of that. I think that people who understand how airlines work – when you get behind, it just takes several days to catch up.”

The CEO added that opposition to vaccine mandates was not what caused the cancellations over the weekend.

“We’re urging all our employees to get vaccinated,” he said. “If they can’t, we’re urging them to seek an accommodation, either for medical or religious reasons. My goal is of course is that no one loses their job. The objective here is to improve health and safety – not for people to lose their jobs.”

“Yes, we have some very strong views on that topic,” he said about the mandates, adding: “But that’s not what was at issue with Southwest over the weekend.”

Southwest Airlines cancelled at least 1,800 flights just days after its pilot union sued the company over its Covid-19 vaccine mandate.

Southwest was forced to cancel more than 1,000 flights on Sunday, around 30 per cent of its US schedule, according to the FlightAware website.

And it blamed “disruptive weather” and air traffic control issues for its problems.

But the Federal Aviation Administration said that airlines were experiencing problems because of their own difficulties with staffing and aircraft.

Another 800 flights were cancelled on Saturday, according to The Washington Post.

The airline said in a Sunday statement that its problems began on Friday because of weather issues at its Florida airports that “were compounded by unexpected air traffic control issues in the same region, triggering delays and prompting significant cancellations for us beginning Friday evening”.

Southwest’s issues with weather and traffic control did not appear to be shared by other airlines.

American Airlines reportedly had around 63 cancellations as of early Sunday afternoon and United Airlines only had nine.

The FAA responded by saying that there were some air traffic staffing issues but that the main issue belonged to the airlines.

“Flight delays and cancellations occurred for a few hours Friday afternoon due to widespread severe weather, military training, and limited staffing in one area of the Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center,” the FAA said in a Sunday statement.

“Some airlines continue to experience scheduling challenges due to aircraft and crews being out of place.”

Southwest said it was attempting to reposition aircraft and crews so that service could get back to normal.

The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association said in its own statement that although it was aware of “operational difficulties affecting Southwest Airlines” it could “say with confidence that our Pilots are not participating in any official or unofficial job actions.”

The union added: “Our Pilots will continue to overcome (Southwest) management’s poor planning, as well as any external operational challenges, and remain the most productive Pilots in the world.”

The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, which on Tuesday said it was filing a temporary restraining order against the Dallas airline related to its August lawsuit over Covid-19 mandates.

Southwest says all of its employees must be vaccinated against Covid-19 by 8 December or face losing their job.


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