How Southwest Flight Cancellations in the U.S. Turned Into a Bogus Vaccine Conspiracy Theory

How Southwest Flight Cancellations in the U.S. Turned Into a Bogus Vaccine Conspiracy Theory
Southwest Airlines travellers wait at the check-in counter at Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport on Oct. 11, 2021, among widespread cancellations and delays that are definitively not about Joe Biden's vaccine policies. (Photo: Kevin Dietsch, Getty Images)

Many Republican politicians and right-wing pundits were thrilled to report that massive disruptions at Southwest Airlines over the past week in the US were due to airline staff, fed up with a forthcoming employer vaccine mandate by President Joe Biden, staging an impromptu protest by walking off the job.

The only problem? No such spontaneous uprising of the silent majority has actually occurred.

Southwest Airlines chief operating officer Mike Van de Ven has since apologised for the delays, which began on early Friday, Oct. 8, after weather and air traffic control issues in Florida and quickly spiraled into a mess of over 2,000 cancelled flights. According to NPR, some 20% of Southwest flights on Saturday and 40% of flights on Sunday were cancelled, with countless others experiencing lengthy delays.

Prominent Republican politicians, including Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, as well as large segments of the conservative blogosphere, quickly jumped on the opportunity to claim airline staff were refusing to work due to their opposition to soon-to-be-implemented federal requirements that large employers and federal contractors ensure their staff are vaccinated or tested for the novel coronavirus once a week. While some pointed to a dispute between the airline and the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association union, which sought in court to block the company from implementing vaccines as a condition of employment while a separate labour lawsuit played out, others didn’t bother to back up the theory at all.

These claims were fishy for a number of reasons, foremost among them that there was virtually no credible sourcing for the claim, despite the fact anti-vaxxers never shut the hell up about their beliefs. As the Washington Post explained, there was instead plenty of evidence indicating the root cause was organizational issues at Southwest. Those include apparent weather issues in Florida that started a cascade of other messed-up flights and caused the airline to lose track of when and where it was reassigning flight crews, as well as understaffing courtesy of decreased hiring during the pandemic. Travel industry analyst and Atmosphere Research Group president Harvey Harteveldt told Insider that Southwest’s “very complex spider web-like point-to-point route network” helps explain why delays were widespread even in areas with no weather issues.

Southwest, the pilot’s union, and the Federal Aviation Administration all denied that any work stoppage was to blame, according to the Post. Slate reported that while the FAA did acknowledge a staffing shortfall at an air traffic control centre in Florida, it also pointed to military exercises and the bad weather and said the original disruption only lasted a few hours. (The vast majority of air traffic controllers are employed by the FAA, not airlines.) The pilot’s union emphasised that Southwest had similar pilot sick rates last weekend as it did over the summer, as well as the airline’s unwillingness or inability to update outdated technical systems that reassign pilots during disruptions. As Slate noted, other airlines did not experience such serious delays, even though the Biden mandate has resulted in backlash from employees at competitors like American Airlines.

Here’s a roundup of some of the conservatives that tried, and pretty much failed, to turn this into a referendum on coronavirus vaccines.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump at a rally in Des Moines, Iowa on Oct. 9. (Photo: Scott Olson, Getty Images) Donald Trump at a rally in Des Moines, Iowa on Oct. 9. (Photo: Scott Olson, Getty Images)

In a radio interview on the Howie Carr Show over the weekend, the ex-president used his big, perfect brain to pinpoint the cause of the troubles at Southwest, which conveniently included not only his 2020 election loss but the vaccine mandate.

“I think it has a lot to do with a lot of things. I think it has something to do with the election that was rigged,” Trump said on the air. “I think these are big fans of your favourite president, Howie, I think that this has something to do with that. I think it has something to do with the… I think it has a lot to do with mandates where it’s just not going in. And they’re going to destroy the economy with what’s happening right now.”

Sounds credible!

Ted Cruz

Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, left, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, right, leaving a Senate GOP conference meeting at the Capitol on Oct. 7, 2021. (Photo: Alex Wong, Getty Images) Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, left, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, right, leaving a Senate GOP conference meeting at the Capitol on Oct. 7, 2021. (Photo: Alex Wong, Getty Images)

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has tried to gin up outrage from his constituents by continually portraying mask and vaccination mandates as an assault on liberty, played a key role in making the unfounded claims about the Southwest outages go viral. He amped up the conservative rumour mill this weekend by tweeting “Joe Biden’s illegal vaccine mandate at work! Suddenly, we’re short on pilots & air traffic controllers. #ThanksJoe.”

Critical thinkers will note that the administration’s vaccine mandate for employers hasn’t even started yet, leaving no coherent explanation for why anti-vaxxers would be staging it on a random weekend with no announcement. The senator only cited a “very credible & senior source in aviation” who claimed there was a “sick out” leaving just three of 33 air traffic controllers in Jacksonville on duty a few days prior. Aides for Cruz didn’t respond to a request for further sourcing from the Dallas Morning News.

Other Republicans in Congress

An elephant with Donald Trump's hair, combining the two mascots of the Republican Party, seen at a demonstration in Olympia against a stay-at-home order in the state of Washington in April 2020. (Photo: Jason Redmond / AFP, Getty Images) An elephant with Donald Trump’s hair, combining the two mascots of the Republican Party, seen at a demonstration in Olympia against a stay-at-home order in the state of Washington in April 2020. (Photo: Jason Redmond / AFP, Getty Images)

While Cruz’s baseless claims got the most attention, other GOP legislators tweeted evidence that they, too, either had no idea what they were talking about or were just making shit up.

“As a loyal Southwest customer who has been flying safely throughout the pandemic and is utterly opposed to vaccine mandates, I’m asking, stop the madness before more damage is done,” Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin posted.

Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona tweeted, “I stand with #Southwest Airlines employees who are fighting against these mandates. This isn’t about a vaccine, this is about freedom.”

Rep. Chip Roy, also from Texas, announced his uncharacteristic support for organised labour on the specific issue of spreading the novel coronavirus: “… I am 100% behind them. Tell @SouthwestAir to shove their ‘we LUV employees’ nonsense. Shut them down. And when they come begging for a bailout – not one @HouseGOP or @SenateGOP should support them. #HealthcareFreedom”

Donald Trump Jr.

Just some insights into the completely fictional Southwest protest from Donald Trump Jr. (Screenshot: Twitter) Just some insights into the completely fictional Southwest protest from Donald Trump Jr. (Screenshot: Twitter)

Donald Trump Jr. has an interesting explanation as to why no evidence exists that workers walking off the job are doing so to protest the Biden administration’s mandate — the media is just making sure you don’t see it.

Apparently, the way you are supposed to learn about the anti-mandate uprising is recycled garbage memes:

Just some insights into the completely fictional Southwest protest from Donald Trump Jr. (Screenshot: Donald Trump Jr. / Instagram) Just some insights into the completely fictional Southwest protest from Donald Trump Jr. (Screenshot: Donald Trump Jr. / Instagram)

Tucker Carlson

Tucker Carlson speaking at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium Feszt in Esztergom, Hungary, in August 2021. (Photo: Janos Kummer, Getty Images) Tucker Carlson speaking at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium Feszt in Esztergom, Hungary, in August 2021. (Photo: Janos Kummer, Getty Images)

Fox News’s favourite crypto-fascist commentator, Tucker Carlson, told viewers on the Monday edition of his show that Florida air traffic controllers walking out over the vaccine mandate sparked off Southwest’s woes. As the Guardian reports, Carlson portrayed the situation as a “direct consequence” of the Biden administration’s vaccine policies. He also launched into a weird diatribe to reassure his audience that he isn’t just pretending to be anti-vax for “prestige or ratings.”

Local news outlets have refuted Carlson’s claims that an organised walkout by Jacksonville air traffic controllers occurred, with the issue instead having to do with employees taking normal, approved leaves of absence and a policy requiring staff who had received the vaccine to remain home for 48 hours to monitor for side effects (which are rarely serious, but one assumes could potentially be an unwelcome distraction to people routing planes).

Todd Starnes

Todd Starnes, who somehow managed to get fired from Fox News Radio for making stuff up, continuing his old habits. (Screenshot: Todd Starnes / Facebook, Fair Use) Todd Starnes, who somehow managed to get fired from Fox News Radio for making stuff up, continuing his old habits. (Screenshot: Todd Starnes / Facebook, Fair Use)

Todd Starnes is a right-wing radio host who was fired from Fox Radio News in 2019 for claiming Democrats worship Moloch (a Caananite god that is associated in the popular imagination with child sacrifice). But he’s managed to turn his C-list celebrity status into running a conservative content farm on Facebook, where he claimed he had it on good authority that the wave of Southwest cancellations had “nothing to do with weather” and urged his followers to join “The Great Rebellion.”

In a blog post, Starnes claimed he had learned this from speaking to “several” Southwest flight attendants during a recent flight. Hmm.

Newsweek

An op-ed in Newsweek claiming, despite the absence of any evidence, that Southwest outages this weekend were due to protests against coronavirus vaccines. (Screenshot: Newsweek, Fair Use) An op-ed in Newsweek claiming, despite the absence of any evidence, that Southwest outages this weekend were due to protests against coronavirus vaccines. (Screenshot: Newsweek, Fair Use)

In an op-ed at Newsweek, deputy opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon wrote a lengthy article arguing that “the Left” was betraying Southwest employees, who, she argued based on virtually no evidence, were staging a sickout motivated by their resentment of how “liberal elites” had handled the coronavirus pandemic and waged culture war on them. (Ungar-Sargon’s sole source for this idea was a link to aviation blog The Points Guy, which briefly mentioned “online speculation” about the mandate.)

Her argument is total and complete garbage culminating in this bizarre rant:

But what we’re seeing now is the possibility that the American working class is developing a class consciousness that’s populist economically, too, albeit in its own way. Forced to defend their autonomy in the face of vaccine mandates, working-class Americans across industries are fighting back and insisting on their collective power. And while they may not pick the issues today’s highly educated Left might wish they did, this moment is presenting Democrats with a stark choice: Do they want to be the side sneering at working-class Americans and cheering at the companies who are firing them? Or do they want to be the side that stands for their empowerment and autonomy, however they themselves choose to define it?

As of Thursday, Ungar-Sargon’s blog post was accompanied by a Newsweek video debunking the rumour.

Right-wing blogs

Conservative news outlets practically stumbled over themselves to be the first to forward credulous rumours about the flight delays.

Tinfoil hat-wearing blog the Federalist, in a post titled, “Coercing Employees On Vaccines Isn’t Helping Southwest Get Its Grounded Planes In The Air,” speculated that employees planning to not comply with the vaccine mandate were trying to burn through their sick leave before being fired. It cited a “corporate employee.” PJ Media, a site with a long history of airing bullshit claims about everything from imminent attempts to impose sharia law to rigged Google search results on Trump, passed on other unfounded social media rumours and suggested Southwest was suppressing the truth because “the obedient puppies are hoping to get a treat from Master Joe, no doubt.” Other right-wing media chop shops that reassured readers Southwest was dealing with vaccine fallout included Red State, which claimed theory was “confirmed.”

As anyone even vaguely aware of the situation could tell you, it was not.