Southwest Airlines (LUV) passengers and customers were left scrambling to rearrange their travel plans as the airline cancelled over 1,000 flights over the weekend of October 9-10, 2021. 

On Sunday October 10, 2021, 1,019 Southwest Airlines (LUV) flights (28% of flights) were cancelled, and 691 flights (19%) were delayed, according to FlightAware, a site that tracks commercial flights. 

On Saturday, October 9, 2021, Southwest cancelled 808 flights while 1,187 flights were delayed. 

The airline pointed to air traffic control issues and poor weather in Florida for the delay and cancellations.

"ATC issues and disruptive weather have resulted in a high volume of cancellations throughout the weekend while we work to recover our operation. We appreciate your patience as we accommodate affected Customers, and Customer Service wait times are longer than usual," Southwest Airlines (LUV) said via social media on October 9, 2021.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) responded, though not directly to Southwest Airlines (LUV), that no air traffic staffing shortages have been reported since October 8, 2021. It acknowledged that flight delays and cancellations occurred for a few hours on the evening of October 8, 2021 due to severe weather, military training and limited staffing in Jacksonville, but these were prior to the Southwest Airlines (LUV) weekend cancellations and delays.

No other US airline reported such a significant number of delays and cancellations over the weekend. American Airlines (A1G) (AAL), which operates a large hub in Miami, canceled 63 flights, or just 2% of its operations, and Florida-based Spirit Airlines (S64) (SAVE) canceled 32 flights, or only 4% of its schedule.

The FAA mentioned, however, that “some airlines continue to experience scheduling challenges due to aircraft and crews being out of place.” 

There was speculation by members of the public on social media that Southwest Airlines’ (LUV) operations were affected due to employees calling in sick or protesting in light of the airline’s recent directive to require all employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. 

Southwest Airlines (LUV) declined to comment on the speculation of pilot protest. The airline instead pointed to the weather and ATC challenges in an emailed statement to AeroTime:

“We experienced weather challenges in our Florida airports at the beginning of the weekend, challenges that were compounded by unexpected air traffic control issues in the same region, triggering delays and prompting significant cancellations for us beginning Friday evening. We’ve continued diligent work throughout the weekend to reset our operation with a focus on getting aircraft and Crews repositioned to take care of our Customers.”

On October 10, 2021, a memo was sent to Southwest employees apologizing for the operational problems.

“I’m sorry for the struggles that you and our customers are experiencing, once again,” Alan Kasher, Southwest’s executive vice president of daily operations, said in the memo which was seen by local US media outlets. “Although we were staffed for the weekend, we could not anticipate the significant disruption that was created from unexpected [air traffic control] issues and bad weather across our Florida stations.

“As we know, irregular operations disrupt even the best plans and can make it difficult to recover the operation quickly. And as we’ve seen before, an unexpected number of delays ultimately leads to a staffing shortage, and at times, mandatory overtime because of the longer operating day.”

Southwest Airlines (LUV) has not had a smooth run over the past few months. In August 2021, the airline announced that it will reduce daily flights in September and October  2021 in order to fix operational issues that caused flight delays and cancellations during the summer of 2021. 

In September 2021, the pilots union of Southwest Airlines (LUV) sued the carrier over changes in work conditions that occurred during the pandemic. 

Southwest has not yet addressed whether more operational delays and cancellations are to be expected during the coming week. 

The FAA, in the meantime, reminded in a tweet that real-time air traffic control status is always available for the public, and has encouraged passengers to check the status themselves.