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Southwest's Mass Flight Cancellations Have Turned Into a Vaccine Conspiracy Theory

Southwest Airlines and its pilots have denied a "sickout," but conservatives are dreaming up an anti-vaxxer uprising.

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Photo: David Zalubowski (AP)

This weekend, over 2,000 reported Southwest Airlines cancellations brought untold thousands of passengers to their knees. The airline has the boring reason: “weather.” Conservatives have a more thrilling one: a working-class rebellion against President Joe Biden’s vaccination tyranny. So victory against Democrats is weary masses forced to stand in line for hours at dawn, sleep on the floor, and make TikToks, while baggage piles up around the conveyor belt.

Among them, Sen. Ted Cruz is spreading an unverified rumor that pilots staged a massive “sickout” to protest “Biden’s illegal vaccine mandate.” Newsweek’s deputy opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon asked: “Were the canceled flights the result of a ‘sick out’ on the part of pilots refusing to get vaccinated?” and continued, baselessly, to conclude that this represents a “powerful form of collective action” by working-class vaccine-refusers.


Southwest Airlines pilots have denied that theory, which seems spun from the fact Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), a bargaining unit representing over 9,000 pilots, filed a request last Friday asking that a Dallas federal court block the airline from enforcing vaccine mandates.

If Cruz read the motion, he’d likely hate their rationale; SWAPA’s staking out a labor rights stance, arguing that Southwest illegally neglected to bargain with the union over the policy change. The motion says that Southwest also doesn’t offer minimum pay during mandatory quarantine time, and other airlines came to the bargaining table to negotiate covid-19 policies with their unions. They say the airline sprung a last-minute deadline on pilots which weakened the union by forcing it into a “fire drill response.”


In fact, SWAPA would like to see violent anti-maskers do jail time; in a joint letter this summer, it pleaded with the Department of Justice to enforce fines and/or up-to 20 years of prison time for passengers who’ve lately assaulted crew members. Passengers angry about mask-wearing are the primary perpetrators of rising in-flight attacks, grounding planes, and forcing the crew to call law enforcement on the ground.

The union attempted to put “sickout” theories to rest in a press release, writing: “SWAPA is aware of operational difficulties affecting Southwest Airlines today due to a number of issues, but we can say with confidence that our Pilots are not participating in any official or unofficial job actions.” In an email to Gizmodo, Southwest, too, wrote that the disruptions “were not a result of Southwest Employee demonstrations.”

“Bad weather and ATC issues in Florida, a large operation for us, on Friday night created significant flight disruptions throughout our network and we spent the weekend working to recover from the high number of displaced Crews and aircraft,” they said.

The FAA also said in an email that “[f]light 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.” They added that “[s]ome airlines continue to experience scheduling challenges due to aircraft and crews being out of place.”


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Southwest Airlines told Gizmodo that they hope operations return to normal tomorrow and that customers should “reach to our Customer relations team to discuss their specific situation.”