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Southwest Airline officials say delays and cancellations weren't caused by a protest

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Southwest Airlines canceled dozens of flights again today as the airline tries to get back to normal operations after a pretty chaotic holiday weekend. Since Friday, Southwest has canceled more than 2,000 flights and delayed thousands more. While the airline blames air traffic control problems and bad weather in Florida, some suggest another reason involving pilots. In a few minutes, we're going to talk with the head of the pilots' union. But first, NPR's David Schaper has this report.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: The operational meltdown for Southwest began Friday, with thunderstorms in Florida forcing lengthy flight delays and cancellations. Twenty percent of its flights on Saturday and close to 40% of flights on Sunday were canceled, while many others were significantly delayed.

HENRY HARTEVELDT: Southwest was hit by the ugly stick this weekend.

SCHAPER: Henry Harteveldt is a travel industry analyst and president of the Atmosphere Research Group.

HARTEVELDT: As a result, Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall and smashed into a thousand pieces and is struggling to put itself back together again.

SCHAPER: Harteveldt says, as delays and cancellations snowballed this weekend, Southwest found itself with many pilots and planes completely out of place. On CNBC this morning, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly acknowledged the obvious.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNBC BROADCAST)

GARY KELLY: It's been a really rough weekend. And obviously, I really feel for our customers and our people that are trying their best to serve our customers.

SCHAPER: And Kelly says about half of Southwest planes go into or out of Florida each day. The FAA says it was short staffed at an air traffic control center in Jacksonville for a few hours, but all other airlines had to contend with that, too, and they recovered by midday Saturday. Southwest, meanwhile, had its worst day for delays and cancellations Sunday. And Henry Harteveldt says one reason is because, unlike its hub-and-spoke competitors, Southwest planes and flight crews fly from one city to another and to another.

HARTEVELDT: But that doesn't excuse the lack of planning and the lack of ability to recover.

SCHAPER: Add to that the unusually bitter tensions between Southwest and its pilots, who went to court on Friday to try to overturn the company's COVID vaccine mandate. But both CEO Kelly and the pilots' union deny that pilots are calling in sick to protest. David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.