MIAMI – Today, Southwest Airlines (WN) canceled over 1,000 flights, or 27% of its schedule, due to disruptions caused by air traffic control issues and bad weather, according to the airline.

According to the flight-tracking website FlightAware, the Dallas-based airline canceled 808 flights on Saturday. In comparison, American Airlines (AA), which has a big hub in Miami, canceled 63 mainline flights, or 2% of its operation, and Spirit Airlines (NK), based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, canceled 32 flights, or 4% of its schedule.

On social media, the difference between WN’s operation and that of other airlines sparked rumors that staff were calling in sick. So what is going on at WN? Is it more than just an ATC and weather issue?

The New Southwest Airlines colors on Heart Two. Photo: Ian Petchenik /Airways

Comments from Southwest Airlines

Alan Kasher, who oversees daily flight operations, told staff in a note on Saturday, “We experienced significant impact in the Florida airports [Friday] evening after an FAA-imposed air traffic management program was implemented due to weather and resulted in a large number of cancellations.”

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did not comment on the note. WN apologized to its customers for the long service waits and said in a statement it hoped “to return to close to normal operations as we move into Sunday.”

Southwest added, “We are working hard behind the scenes to minimize challenges and fully recover the operation as we take care of displaced Crews and Customers as quickly as possible,” according to CNBC.

Southwest Airlines N463WN Boeing 737-7H4. Photo: Alberto Cucini/Airways

Comments from Southwest Pilot Association

The airline’s recent announcement that it would comply with the Biden administration’s requirement that federal contractors mandate staff COVID vaccinations is contributing to pilots’ distractions, the WN Pilots Association, the pilots’ labor union, said earlier on Saturday.

“All of these challenges have led to an added distraction in the cockpit,” it said. “This week’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate announcement by the Company only exacerbates the situation.”

“Make no mistake about it – due to months of staffing issues and inefficient scheduling practices we have been operating at a higher than normal operational risk,” the union’s safety committee told members in a post on Saturday. It also stated that fatigue reports, which force pilots not to fly, are three times higher than historical norms.

However, the union said it was certain its pilots were not participating in any official or unofficial job actions. “Our Pilots will continue to overcome SWA management’s bad planning, as well as any external operational hurdles,” it claimed.

Southwest employees back in 2017. Photo: Southwest Airlines.

Staffing Shortages

We can recall that during the summer, hundreds of WN flight cancellations were caused by staffing shortages. To minimize more interruptions, the airline shortened its flight schedule.

Other airlines encountered a staff shortage after urging thousands of workers to take leave or buyouts during the peak of the pandemic, only for travel demand to pick up faster than predicted this summer.

Southwest has had a difficult time recruiting new personnel. Last month, incoming CEO Bob Jordan warned CNBC that if the carrier did not have enough people to sustain the business over the spring break season, it would curtail flights.

The airline did not respond to a request for comment to CNBC on whether personnel shortages played a part in this weekend’s cancellations.

Featured image: Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 Max 7 N7204U. Photo: Michael Rodeback/Airways