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Aviation Industry Updates: October 12, 2021

By October 12, 2021October 19th, 2021Industry News

Southwest Suffers Meltdown | Brutal Cancellation & Delay Issues

  • Southwest canceled more than 1,800 flights over the weekend, causing a cascading effect of chaos throughout its network and leaving thousands of passengers stranded around the U.S. and Central America. Many more flights were delayed, and problems continued into Monday.

  • Southwest initially said on Saturday that the delays were caused by a combination of bad weather in Florida and air traffic control delays. The Federal Aviation Administration, which manages air traffic control, said that it did not have any active delays, causing confusion — Southwest later clarified that it was referring to after-effects from the Friday night delays.
  • The confusion in initial messaging, coupled with Southwest’s looming compliance with the federal vaccination mandate, led to a rash of rumors that pilots and others — including air traffic controllers — were staging a walkout in protest of vaccine requirements, with politicians quickly jumping onto the narrative.
  • Southwest did not return multiple requests for additional comment on Monday.
  • Sources at both Southwest and air traffic control denied to TPG that there was a walk-out or other labor action, despite some employees vocally opposing the ban and threatening job actions
  • In the latest statement from Southwest, received by TPG Sunday night, the airline described several causes for the disruption but did not directly address the rumors of the walkout.
  • “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,” Southwest said in the statement. “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.”
  • Southwest has operated with little margin for error all summer as it filled its schedule to capacity to try and take advantage of returning travel demand, despite having lost about 630 pilots to buyouts and early retirements during the early days of the pandemic — about 6% to 7% of its total pilot workforce, as pointed out by Jon Ostrower of The Air Current.
  • That’s caused Southwest to face delays all summer, leaving it particularly vulnerable to disruptions, such as the scattered storms Friday.
  • The airline was particularly short-staffed for its schedule this weekend. On Sunday, Southwest scheduled 3,600 flights, its highest number since March, 2020, straining its already limited resources.
  • Simultaneously, the Jacksonville air traffic control center — which controls airspace in much of the Southeast — experienced a staffing shortage Friday, something that is relatively common at air traffic control centers around the country. A memo from the Jacksonville Aviation Authority chief operating officer, first reported by Jacksonville reporter Ben Becker, attributed the short-staffing to normal approved leave and mandatory 48-hour waiting periods after controllers receive a dose of the vaccine before they’re allowed to work again, a policy meant to prevent minor side effects from distracting on-duty controllers.
  • That short-staffing increased the delays, making it more difficult for Southwest to recover given its packed schedule a reduced margin for error. Southwest was left with planes and crews in the wrong places, forcing it to cancel flights to try and correct its network.
  • “Although we were staffed for the weekend, we could not anticipate the significant disruption that was created from unexpected ATC issues and bad weather across our Florida stations,” Alan Kasher, Southwest’s executive vice president of daily flight operations, told staff in a memo Sunday.
  • “I can say with certainty that there are no work slowdowns or sickouts either related to the recent mandatory vaccine mandate or otherwise,” members of SWAPA leadership wrote in a statement on Sunday, echoing a Saturday statement in which the union said “we can say with confidence that our Pilots are not participating in any official or unofficial job actions.”

The Points Guy

Alaska Airlines Set for Aggressive Growth | Begins Hiring Pilots


  • Pushing forward with an aggressive growth plan, Alaska Airlines has recalled all its pilots who had taken long-term leave during the pandemic, and this week it began training its first class of newly hired pilots since the downturn hit.
  • “We are growing our airline back from the deep cuts we made in 2020,” Capt. John Ladner, Alaska’s vice president of flight operations, wrote in a memo sent to pilots Wednesday.
  • In an interview Friday, he said the airline hopes to hire about 170 new pilots by year’s end.
  • Alaska has just taken delivery of its seventh Boeing MAX and will take five more by year-end and another 63 over the following two years. It has a total of 93 MAXs on order with options to buy 52 more that it expects to add by 2026.
  • With those additions, next year Alaska’s fleet will climb back above its pre-pandemic level of 237 jets.
  • By the end of 2023, Alaska will have a fleet of 251 jets, and if it exercises all the MAX purchase options it will have more than 300 jets by the end of 2025.

Anchorage Daily News

United CEO Talks Travel | Future of 50-seat Regional Jets Uncertain


  • United Airlines just saw its strongest bookings week since the start of the pandemic — suggesting that the setback airlines saw from the rise of the delta variant is beginning to recede (other airlines saw similar improvement).
  • It came as the airline was receiving media coverage and praise from around the globe for its vaccine mandate, which saw more than 97% of employees vaccinated, and just a few hundred of its 67,000 U.S. employees unwilling to meet requirements.
  • “I think we’re back on the road to recovery,” Kirby said. “We could always have another setback with COVID, but barring that, I absolutely think we’re on the road to recovery”
  • The data that Kirby has seen coming in is good, but early; the positive turn in direction is only weeks old.
  • “Business travel is now back to levels that are [the same] as what they peaked at before the delta variant started at the end of June,” Kirby said. “And I think it’ll really pick up in January.”
  • “We still need office towers, people back in office buildings, to really get business travel going.”
  • “We’ve tried to focus on making it easy for customers, so that you can upload whatever documentation you need. to get your boarding pass before you leave for the airport,” Kirby said. “Just trying to make it easy under the presumption that there will never be a common, endorsed solution.”
  • In June, United launched a campaign titled “United Next,” which it described as directing the airline’s post-pandemic development.
  • As part of the program, the airline ordered 270 new narrow-body aircraft, unveiled a new cabin interior for those planes, and said that it would retrofit its entire existing narrow-body fleet by around late-2025.
  • As part of its strategy, United plans to upgauge numerous markets from older regional jets to newer, larger, but more efficient mainline aircraft.
  • “We’re still going to fly 50-seat jets to small communities throughout the country to make sure they’re still connected to our global hub network,” airline chief commercial officer Andrew Nocella said in June. “But we’re no longer going to use small jets to fly to large communities.”
  • How committed United remains to that 50-seat market remains undecided.
  • “We’re evaluating our 50-seat market, we’re going to be much smaller in the 50-seat market, and most of our 50-seat lift is going to be the -550, which has first class, the better product,” Kirby said, referring to the CRJ550, a premium-heavy adaptation of the Bombardier CRJ700.
  • “We’re still debating what the long-term future of 50 seaters really is,” he added. “The challenge is, do you want to serve places like Erie, Pennsylvania, at all, or Cody, Wyoming, or do those places just get cut off of the connectivity to the world?”


Union Warns of Staffing Shortages | Refusing Vaccine Exemptions Could Hurt American


  • The union representing pilots for American Airlines warned the company could face a staffing shortage ahead of the busy holiday travel season if it implements a stringent COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
  • The Allied Pilots Association requested that American Airlines find “alternate means of compliance with the Executive Order be made available for professional pilots” so as not to prompt mass firings and unpaid leave following President Joe Biden’s September announcement mandating large employers to require vaccinations or weekly testing.
  • As of Wednesday, the APA was hopeful that it could negotiate exemptions despite the company’s looming deadline, saying it “fully expects American Airlines management to continue its historical practice of bargaining with APA over issues related to the implementation and impact of the announced COVID-19 vaccine mandate.”
  • American Airlines, along with several other major airlines, said it would fully comply with the mandate’s goal of having all employees vaccinated. The deadline for staff to submit proof of vaccination is Nov. 24, the day before Thanksgiving.

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