Southwest pilots warn fatigue, frustration could fuel further outages

The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association has blamed the airline’s management

Southwest Airlines Co. pilots said the airline’s weekend meltdown reflected longer-running fatigue and frustration among its crew, leaving it vulnerable to further outages.

Southwest’s troubles eased Tuesday as the carrier worked to reset itself after canceling more than 2,000 flights over the weekend and into Monday. The airline on Tuesday canceled 91 flights, or 2% of its schedule, according to flight tracking site FlightAware, compared with roughly 1,900 canceled flights over Saturday and Sunday, and another 435 Monday.

The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, which represents Southwest’s 9,000 pilots, has blamed the airline’s management and what it describes as poor planning for the trouble. The union raised alarms over the summer that pilots were being stretched thin by frequent reassignments that have led to longer workdays and extended trips. Without changes, problems like this weekend’s could crop up again, union president Capt. Casey Murray said in an interview Monday.


"We’re going to see it next weekend or the holidays or whenever a thunderstorm pops up in Mexico," he said. 

Staffing problems, and the added burden for workers that companies do have, are an increasingly common challenge across industries from restaurants to manufacturing and healthcare. Asking workers to stay late and pick up extra shifts risks staff burnout and resignations, companies have said.

In interviews, some Southwest pilots have said the constant prospect of being rerouted and uncertainty about the length of their trips could be contributing to pilots’ reluctance to pick up extra flights. The union said Monday evening that pilots did cover the majority of the trips that were left open due to staffing issues over the weekend.

Multiple factors contributed to the weekend’s turmoil. Severe weather in Florida and air-traffic control issues that slowed traffic there Friday night were the immediate trigger, Southwest has said. That led to a large number of cancellations that left hundreds of planes and crew members out of place, starting a chain reaction that took several days to work through.

As the airline worked to reassign trips and burned through on-call staff, lack of available crew was the stated reason for over 2,100 canceled flights over the weekend, the pilots union said.

"When an airline gets behind it’s hard to catch up," Southwest Chief Executive Gary Kelly said in an interview on CNBC.


The airline had no immediate comment on the union’s concerns over similar future outages. Senior Southwest executives have said they recognize the need for more of a staffing "cushion" to insulate operations from unexpected shocks, and they have said they would consider cutting more flights in November and December to avoid more problems. Southwest executives have also apologized to crew members for the disruptions and praised their resilience.

The cancellations this month are the latest challenge for the Dallas-based airline as air travel accelerated in the months since Covid-19 vaccines became widely available in the U.S. In June, technical problems prompted Southwest to cancel hundreds of flights and delay hundreds more. Southwest and other airlines set ambitious new schedules to meet rising demand—but stretched resources thin.

A Southwest Airlines plane takes off for flight. The company is dealing with cancellation issues for nearly a week in October 2021. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee / AP Images)

Southwest had reduced its packed flight schedule coming into the fall in an effort to alleviate some of the problems it had over the summer, but still didn’t have the backup staffing it needed to handle unexpected events Friday night, Mr. Kelly said Tuesday.

"We were thinly staffed coming into the weekend, and that certainly didn’t help things as we were trying to recover," he said.

In a message to members Monday evening, the pilots union attributed an uptick in sickness and fatigue calls to the cumulative impact of these strains. Pilots are encouraged to disclose when they feel they are too tired to fly to reduce the risk of mistakes that could lead to accidents.

October is on track to be the second-worst month on record for Southwest pilot fatigue calls after August, the union said in a message to members Monday evening. There were 32 fatigue calls Saturday and 68 on Sunday, the union said, attributing that to reassignments, inability to find hotels, and "four-plus months of scheduling mismanagement."


Sick rates among Southwest pilots this month are running ahead of prior Octobers, though they are comparable to the level in August and slightly higher than last month, the union said in its message. Even taking into account the pandemic, the numbers show the effects of ongoing staffing shortages since June, with the sick rate creeping up as pilots get worn down, the union said.

What the figures don’t show, the union has said, is evidence that pilots have been calling out in protest of the airline’s plans to mandate Covid-19 vaccines in order to comply with new federal rules. That theory has gained traction among some politicians, commentators, and social media users, but while there has been backlash to the mandate from some employees, both the union and airline management have said there is no evidence of any coordinated action.

The company had no immediate comment on the union’s data.

The relationship between Southwest and its pilots union has become tenser in recent months. The union sued Southwest in August, alleging that the airline made unilateral changes to working conditions as it responded to the pandemic over the last year. Last week the union updated the suit to include an objection to Southwest’s implementation of a vaccine mandate and sought a temporary restraining order to block that and other policies.

Mr. Kelly said in the CNBC interview that the company had no issue working with its employees and that it is encouraging everyone to get vaccinated or, if they cannot, to seek accommodations to the new federal rules.

Staffing has been a challenge for Southwest and other airlines since the coronavirus pandemic halted travel indefinitely. About 5,000 employees left the airline permanently and 11,000 went on extended leave. The airline struggled to call those employees back and retain them once demand increased in recent months, Southwest executives have said.


Southwest has said it is over halfway to its goal of hiring around 5,000 workers this year and plans to hire 8,000 more next year.

Hiring has been difficult as airlines including Southwest face fiercer competition for some roles, like airport ground staff. Bob Jordan, a Southwest executive who will become the airline’s CEO next year, has said that is a new predicament for a company that has never before had trouble attracting employees. While Southwest used to get over 40 applications per opening, more recently it has received about 14, he said at an industry event last month.

"The constraints have always been, can we get aircraft, can we get facilities, can we get gates?" Mr. Jordan said. "I’ve never experienced a time when the constraint is, can we get employees?"