With back-to-back days of more than 500 flight cancellations absent significant winter storms, the airline isn't saying that anymore.
Southwest, the nation's largest domestic carrier, canceled nearly 650 Thursday flights, or 1 in 5 flights, after canceling 534 flights, or 17%, of its Wednesday flights, according to flight tracker FlightAware. In total, the airline has canceled nearly 1,200 flights in two days-plus, more than any U.S. carrier. The airline accounts for nearly one-third of total U.S. flight cancellations Thursday, according to FlightAware.
Southwest spokesman Dan Landson said the airline continues to be "challenged" by the weather but is also now seeing an "uptick" in COVID sick calls due to a spike in infections and requirements for close contacts to also quarantine, which hurts its efforts to recover from storms. (A big storm is brewing on the East Coast ahead of weekend travel and has already hit Buffalo, New York and Nashville, Tennessee.)
Landson said the airline is proactively canceling flights so it doesn't strand customers.
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The staffing shortage has prompted Southwest to extend holiday bonus pay for flight attendants through Jan. 25, a policy announced to employees on Wednesday.
"Our hope is to hope is to stabilize the operation again as we work through winter storms, navigate the national COVID-19 spike, and maintain sufficient staffing,'' Sonya Lacore, vice president of inflight operations, said in a memo.
Lacore said in the memo that some flight attendants are working a lot, others "hardly at all," which suggests a spike in overall sick calls beyond COVID-19. Southwest's flight attendants union did not respond to a request for comment and Southwest did not provide details on the volume or type of sick calls.
"There is no better way for me to express my thoughts other than to say that we need you – each one of you – in order to successfully make it through this,'' Lacore said. "We know that we are asking you to keep fighting the fight with us and that it likely feels as though we continue to ask for more from you. While we ask you to hang in there, we want to do all we can to reward you for going the distance."
Lacore said employees who are not feeling well should stay home "and take care of yourself.''
"Proactively ensuring you are not spreading any illness to your cohearts (Southwest's term for co-workers) is another action we can take to move the needle in the right direction,'' she said.
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Southwest pilot sick calls are lower than average but COVID-19 pulls due to close contact with someone who tested positive are higher than normal, according to Amy Robinson, spokeswoman for the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association.
One day last week, 600 pilots called out, half of them due to COVID-19 contact tracing, she said.
Southwest, which had an operational meltdown in October with daily cancellations topping 1,000 flights at the worst point, as the highest number of cancellations this week but other airlines are also still canceling a significant number of flights. United Airlines has canceled 236 Thursday flights, or 11% of scheduled flights. The airline said in a statement that it continues to be affected by a shortage of flight crews and other front-line workers due to the COVID-19 spike.
"As a result, we've unfortunately had to cancel some flights and have been working to notify impacted customers up to a week in advance of them coming to the airport,'' the airline said.
Alaska Airlines canceled 118 flights, or 16% of scheduled flights. Alaska passengers should expect flight cancellations to continue through the end of the month. The Seattle-based carrier said Thursday it will cut its schedule by about 10% through the end of January due to "unprecedented employee sick calls.''
"We are at our best when we are a safe, reliable and caring," the airline said in a statement. "And right now, we need to build more reliability back into our operation as we deal with the impacts of omicron and during a time when guests generally fly less."
The major airline totals, with the exception of Southwest, exclude flights by their regional airline partners. SkyWest, a major partner for United, Delta, American and Alaska, has had among the heaviest flight cancellations in the past couple of weeks as airlines tend to ax those regional flights first. On Thursday, SkyWest canceled 262 flights, or 11% of those scheduled. FlightAware does not break out regional carrier flight cancellations by major airline partners.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why is Southwest canceling flights? Airline scrapped more than 600 today