While the US president blamed Southwest Airlines for the disruptions, critics say his policies caused a pilot shortage
US President Joe Biden has threatened to hold airlines “accountable” over a spate of delayed and canceled flights, with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg singling out Southwest Airlines in particular. However, the Biden administration has been accused of contributing to the problem.
With more than half of the continental US affected by a bitter winter cyclone, at least 3,100 flights were canceled throughout the country on Sunday, with a further 6,800 delayed. Delays and cancellations still numbered into the thousands on Monday, but by Wednesday, one airline in particular was still struggling to resume normal service: Southwest, a low-cost carrier.
According to FlightAware, a flight tracking website, some 2,509 Southwest flights, or 62% of the airline’s planned service, were canceled by Wednesday afternoon. The airline has canceled more than 14,500 flights since Friday.
“We are past the point where they could say this is a weather-driven issue,” Buttigieg told ABC News. “So what this indicates is a system failure, and they need to make sure that these stranded passengers get to where they need to go and that they are provided adequate compensation,” he continued, adding that doing so “is the airlines’ responsibility.”
The Department of Transport announced on Tuesday that it would examine whether the rash of cancellations constituted a breach of Southwest’s customer service plan, while President Joe Biden said his administration “is working to ensure airlines are held accountable.”
However, Southwest has been grappling with a shortage of pilots for more than a year, with some staff refusing to work due to a Covid-19 vaccine mandate imposed in September 2021. The mandate was brought in by Southwest itself, citing a controversial directive from the Biden administration. Southwest’s pilots’ union bitterly opposed the mandate, and opposed recent efforts by the airline to hire foreign pilots to cope with the shortfall.
Across the industry, pilots’ unions warned the Biden administration that vaccine mandates would lead to “mass terminations of unvaccinated pilots.” While it is unclear how many pilots quit or took early retirement before Biden’s vaccine directive was halted by the Supreme Court earlier this year, one study in August found that the US airline industry faced a shortfall of 8,000 pilots in 2022, partly due to early retirements.
Meanwhile, Buttigieg has resisted pressure to raise the retirement age for pilots to 67, saying in July that the US can’t “keep the Baby Boomer generation in the cockpit indefinitely.”
In a video message released on Tuesday, Southwest CEO Bob Jordan said that he is “optimistic” that regular service will resume by next week.
December 29, 2022 at 04:17AM