In the midst of Southwest Airlines’ staffing crisis, US health expert calls memo ‘insane’

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The American Southwest airline has canceled more than 10,000 flights in the week before Christmas and in the days after.

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Epidemiologist and health economist Eric Feigl-Ding was confused by Southwest Airlines‘ memo last week. The US-based airline had to cancel over 10,000 flights leading up to the Christmas holiday because a winter storm messed up its flight and employee scheduling networks.

Feigl-Ding said that the important parts of the memo, which came from the office of Chris Johnson, the airline’s Vice President in charge of airport operations, said that “employees who call in sick will be fired (unless they have a note from a doctor)…” Feigl-Ding says that the airline also cancelled all personal days off and told employees that they would be fired if they didn’t want to work overtime.

“I don’t get this Southwest Airlines memo to airport workers: 1) People who call in sick will be fired if they don’t have a note from a doctor IN PERSON (a note from a virtual doctor isn’t good enough!) 2) No personal leave. If not, the end! 3) Refusing to work extra hours = getting fired!

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In the memo that Feigl-Ding sent out, she said that they had “an obligation to customers and to each other” and that there was a “operational emergency” that would last until “a memo from me (Chris Johnson) telling you the same.”

“This is not the kind of message I or any other leader wants to send, but it is necessary to get the Agents back on track so we can serve our Customers.”

Bloomberg said that the airline had confirmed that the memo and others like it were real and had apologised to customers for the problem.

The Dallas-based, domestic-focused airline usually has a good relationship with its customers, but last week and this week, it got a lot of harsh criticism on social media. Labor leaders have also brought up horror stories from stranded passengers and airline workers.

Mike Sage, a businessman, told the news agency AFP, “It’s a complete meltdown.” He also said that he had to wait in line for two hours to get a warning ticket.

“When (the attendant) handed me the ticket, she looked me in the eyes and said, ‘If I were you, I wouldn’t count on this flight either. I would choose a different airline. We have crews stuck all over the place, and pilots are sleeping on the floor in airports,'” he told AFP.

Before Christmas, there was a terrible winter storm that shut down all airlines in the US and killed more than 50 people. But by Tuesday, American and United seemed to be back to normal, while Southwest was still having trouble.

By December 23, 90% of Southwest’s routes were affected, and then the employee scheduling system broke down. Under American aviation safety rules, pilots were either not in position or resting, so the airline had to cancel more flights.

AFP said that more than 10,600 flights were cancelled between five days before Christmas and two days after the holiday.

What does the US government do?

“Southwest’s rate of flight cancellations and delays is too high… The US Department of Transportation told AFP that the airline’s prices are “dramatically higher than those of other carriers.” It also said that the airline should compensate passengers and “do right” by its staff.

US vice president Joe Biden retweeted the agency’s statement, and Maria Cantwell, chair of the Senate Commerce Committee and a Democrat from Washington, said her committee will look into it.

Southwest has had problems over the last few days that have nothing to do with the weather. A committee will look into what caused these problems and what effect they have had.

Southwest has apologised for this mess and said that the trouble it has caused customers is “unacceptable.” Labor unions say that the storm has made the problem of chronic underinvestment worse.

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