Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly blamed President Joe Biden for the airline’s decision to go the route of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for its staff, arguing the new rules for federal contractors put them in a bind.
The federal contractor rule dates back to September 9, but Kelly’s answer was given in the context of a new Texas order from Governor Greg Abbott (R-TX) that bans COVID-19 vaccine mandates by employers in the state. Southwest Airlines is both a federal contractor and based in Dallas, Texas.
“I’ve never been in favor of corporations imposing that kind of a mandate,” Kelly told CNBC on Tuesday morning. “I’m not in favor of that, never have been. But the executive order from President Biden mandates that all federal employees and then all federal contractors, which covers all major airlines, have to have a vaccine mandate in place by December 8. So we’re working through that.”
Southwest, one of the four major airlines in the United States, had a turbulent weekend that was filled with cancellations, far more than any other major airline. Over the weekend, Southwest canceled more than 1,800 flights, and on Monday, the service interruptions continued, with more than 350 flights canceled.
The company has denied the issues were attributable to vaccines mandates, and instead blamed the weather and air traffic control issues in Florida dating back to Friday — even though no other major airlines had such issues. The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association made a similar denial.
“I think people, again, that understand how airlines work, when you get behind, it just takes several days to catch up,” said Kelly. “The fact that we’re basically caught up yesterday and today supports the assertion that we’re making here. We were significantly behind on Friday, and it just takes several days to catch up.”
As of Tuesday morning at 12:00 p.m. EST, Southwest was no longer the leader in flight cancellations and had only canceled 89 flights, or 2% of its service, and delayed 394 flights, or 11% of its service, according to data from Flight Aware, a flight tracking service.
The turmoil comes after a similar episode in June when computer glitches caused Southwest Airlines to cancel hundreds of flights and delay 1,500 flights, as The Washington Post reported.
“It’s been a rough summer, and I’m not offering any excuses,” said Kelly, later adding, “We definitely have some staffing challenges.”