When Southwest Airlines canceled more than 2,000 flights over the weekend, citing bad weather and air traffic control issues, unsupported claims to blame for vaccine mandates began to take off.
Conservative politicians and critics, including Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, have claimed that the flight disruptions were caused by pilots and air traffic controllers leaving their jobs or calling patients to protest federal vaccination requirements.
The airline, its pilots’ union and the Federal Aviation Administration have denied this.
“The weekend’s challenges were not the result of the Southwest employee protests,” Southwest spokesman Chris Maines said Monday.
However, Twitter posts alleging that airline employees “stand up to medical tyranny” and engage in a “mass disease” have amassed thousands of shares. Mysterious and anonymous messages on social media have speculated that Southwest has been hiding the true cause of her unrest. Crowd anti-vaccine shouts like .DoNotComply, .NoVaccineMandate and .HoldTheLine were among the 10 most popular hashtags tweeted regarding Southwest over the weekend, according to a report by media intelligence firm Zignal Labs.
Even as flights approached normal on Tuesday, the Texas-based airline remained at the center of the latest front in the vaccine mandate culture war, and opponents of vaccine requirements have exploited its challenges.
Neither the company nor its pilots’ union has provided evidence to support their explanations for why nearly 2,400 flights were canceled from Saturday to Monday. Southwest only said bad weather and air traffic control issues in Florida on Friday caused back-to-back failures that trapped planes and pilots out of position on their next flight.
The crisis came to a head on Sunday, when the airline canceled more than 1,100 flights, or 30% of its schedule. By Tuesday evening, it had canceled fewer than 100 flights, or 2% of its schedule, although more than 1,000 were postponed, according to tracking service FlightAware.
“When you’re late, it only takes several days to catch up,” CEO Gary Kelly said Tuesday on CNBC. “We were pretty much left behind on Friday.”
Southwest struggled all summer with delays and cancellations. A senior staff executive admitted Sunday that the airline is still understaffed and may need to cut flights in November and December.
Despite repeated requests, the company and the union have refused to say how many employees have missed work during the crisis. They said absentee rates were similar to those on a typical summer weekend, but they did not put together numbers to support that argument. It is also unclear how many unvaccinated southern pilots are.
We don’t know, and the company doesn’t know,” said Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association.
Meanwhile, speculation from conservative politicians and prominent pundits plunged into the void. Many shared the unsupported theory, but few provided details, facts or examples of employees who quit work to protest the vaccine.
“Putting Joe Biden’s Illegal Vaccine into Action!” Cruz tweeted on Sunday. “All of a sudden, we’re short on pilots and air traffic controllers. Thanks Joe.”
The Republican senator wrote in another tweet Monday that he met last week with pilots’ union leaders who “expressed deep concern about vaccine mandates.” A spokeswoman for Southwest pilots said no one in the union had spoken to Cruise. A Cruz spokesperson did not respond to emailed questions from The Associated Press about whether the Republican senator had any first-hand knowledge of pilots or air traffic controllers who skip the job.
Arizona Republican Representative Andy Bigs and Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin also spread the rumors on social media, without providing evidence.
Mysterious, familiar “friend-of-friend” stories are a dangerous form of disinformation because they “feel like insider information being shared by individuals directly involved in the event,” according to Rachel Moran, a disinformation researcher at the University of Washington.
Similar unsupported claims circulated online in August, when social media users falsely claimed that flight delays and cancellations from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport were the result of vaccine mandates. In September, false rumors circulated online that 40% of defense contractor General Dynamics employees had refused the vaccine and threatened to quit.
Some Twitter users have linked Southwest’s flight problems to the news that the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association on Friday asked a federal judge in Dallas to block the airline’s vaccine mandate. The union said that under federal labor law, Southwest must negotiate with the union before making changes that affect working conditions. The judge has not yet ruled.
When White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked on Tuesday to respond to allegations that vaccine mandates have slashed the workforce and contributed to supply chain disruptions, she dealt a cynical blow at Cruz — derisively calling him a “global expert on business, travel and health.” – Before defending Biden’s policy.
“I know there has been a little hype over the past few days about Southwest Airlines,” Psaki said. “We now know that some of these claims were completely false and that the problems in fact were not entirely related to vaccine mandates.”
Biden’s order, which is still in progress, would require employers with 100 or more workers to be vaccinated or tested weekly for COVID-19. However, the airlines are under contract with the government as they perform work such as Defense Department emergency flights that brought Afghan refugees to the United States in August. This makes airlines subject to even stricter criteria under Biden’s order: mandatory vaccinations with no opt-outs from testing.
Similar to other airlines, Southwest told employees last week that it will require them to be vaccinated by December 8.
While some employees at airlines and other major companies have spoken out against the vaccine requirements, comments on social media have created an exaggerated sense of dissent, according to Moran, a disinformation scientist at the University of Washington.
“In fact, there are very few people protesting employment-based mandates for a vaccine,” Moran said. “People are more susceptible to misinformation in times of crisis, and labor shortages and delays in the supply chain either create a real sense of crisis or are manipulated by disinformation spreaders to make it appear as if we are heading toward a crisis.”
Swenson reports from New York. Amanda Seitz in Columbus, Ohio contributed to this report.