It’s probably a good time to address the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) air traffic controller walkout since the FAA doesn’t want to. News of canceled flights began leaking on Saturday, October 9, 2021, most of which were with Southwest Airlines in Jacksonville, FL. Those cancellations were followed by more from American Airlines and Delta. Based on data from FlightAware, 28 percent, or 1018, of Southwest Airlines flights were either delayed or canceled as of 7 p.m. on Sunday. This number is up from 808 flights canceled on Saturday, totaling a combined 1826 canceled flights.
The number of cancellations continues to climb, breaching a thousand on Sunday night. Southwest Airlines cited “ATC issues and disruptive weather” as the cause. However, the FAA is rather tight-lipped regarding the cause. What was their reaction to the situation?
According to the Florida Times-Union, an FAA spokesperson issued the following statement,
“No FAA air traffic staffing shortages have been reported since Friday. 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. “Some airlines continue to experience scheduling challenges due to aircraft and crews being out of place. Please contact the airlines for details about current flight schedules.”
ATC issues and disruptive weather have resulted in a high volume of cancellations throughout the weekend while we work to recover our operation. We appreciate your patience as we accommodate affected Customers, and Customer Service wait times are longer than usual. (1/2) pic.twitter.com/o1scQJ5lLb
— Southwest Airlines (@SouthwestAir) October 9, 2021
But the explanation doesn’t scratch the surface of what’s going on. There appears to be a media blackout of an organized “sickout” of air traffic controllers from Jacksonville Center in response to the impending vaccine mandates which will result in disciplinary action and eventually termination for many unwilling to take the jab.
The Allied Pilots Association (APA), a union that represents over 15,000 American Airlines employees, asked President Biden to grant their employees vaccine exemptions, fearing that mass chaos will ensue in the face of potential termination. The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), another union, has filed a lawsuit against the airline over the vaccine mandate.
As more flights are canceled, and an already short-staffed FAA continues to feel the burn, will the airlines budge on the vaccine mandates? Staffing is stretched across the United States and many airports are operating with a skeleton crew. Let’s not forget that many controllers are still unable to transfer to other facilities, and some are even stuck with six-day work weeks. Can the FAA really afford to terminate its employees, and can they really afford to continue operating with limited controllers on busy positions, thus putting safety in jeopardy?
A source from a West Virginia airport provided American Pigeon with the following example: “under normal conditions, a small control tower would use 4-5 controllers, 2 in the tower and 2 in radar; however, as of recently, that number has been reduced to 2-3 for some shifts. If 1-2 call in sick, on any given shift, there must be a choice made between calling in overtime or shutting down operations. If everyone is being terminated over a vaccine, there’s no one to take the overtime even if we want to offer it.” (For more information on the FAA’s Air Traffic Control plan see this 2020 report.)
Major delays and cancellations for passengers flying Southwest Airlines. The airline is reporting an air traffic management program put in place because of weather is causing the flight back-ups. However, some passengers are hearing that some employees have walked off the job. pic.twitter.com/QSpQbglgnc
— Jewell Hillery (@HilleryJewell) October 10, 2021
Alex Berenstein reports in his blog “Unreported Truths,” an email from a pilot sent to Southwest, in which he argues that the airline has more flexibility to stand up to the White House’s mandates.