Claims of pilots protesting vaccine mandates circulated on social media this weekend after thousands of Southwest Airlines flights were canceled. Evidence points to a different reason for the cancellations.

Southwest Airlines was forced to cancel over 2,000 flights this past weekend due to what they called “external operational challenges.” The cancellations sparked rumors that the disruption was caused by an organized walkout by pilots protesting the company’s vaccine mandate.

Both Southwest Airlines and the pilots’ union, Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), denied that the cancellations had anything to do with actions by the pilots. Rather, the organizations cited bad weather and “external operational challenges” as reasons for the cancellations.

According to a Southwest Airlines press release, “On Friday evening, the airline ended the day with numerous cancellations, primarily created by weather and other external constraints, which left aircraft and crews out of pre-planned positions to operate our schedule on Saturday.” These factors created additional cancellations that lasted up until Monday.

The weekend of cancellations comes just after Southwest pilots asked a court to block the airlines’ vaccine mandate.

Pilots contend that the new vaccine mandate violates their rights under the Railway Labor Act, which dictates how airlines must negotiate with unions. SWAPA claims that these new terms of employment were unlawfully established without proper negotiation with pilot unions.

The timing of these two events led people to believe that the flight cancellations over the weekend were due to demonstrations of dissent by pilots in the form of a planned sickout.

“There are false claims of job actions by Southwest Pilots currently gaining traction on social media and making their way into mainstream news,” said association president Casey Murray in a press release this weekend. “I can say with certainty that there are no work slowdowns or sickouts either related to the recent mandatory vaccine mandate or otherwise.” 

The airlines further emphasized this point in their statement and clarified, “the operational challenges were not a result of Southwest Employee demonstrations.”

Despite these reassurances, rumors still spread on social media claiming that the flight cancellations were a byproduct of Southwest implementing an employee vaccine mandate.

Some prominent political figures used the rumor as a rallying point for their anti-vaccination ideologies.

President Donald Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., tweeted, “The fact that thousands of Southwest employees walked off the job protesting the COVID vaccine mandate forcing the airline to cancel more than 1000 flights is not getting enough attention. Media will make sure you don’t see it but keep watching, it won’t be the last protest!”

Republican Senator for Texas Ted Cruz joined the fray, tweeting, “Joe Biden’s illegal vaccine mandate at work! Suddenly, we’re short on pilots & air traffic controllers. #ThanksJoe.”

In a White House daily briefing on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki mocked Sen. Cruz for his misunderstanding of the issue, calling him a “world-renowned business, travel and health expert.”

Psaki continued afterwards, defending the vaccine mandate in relation to its effects on businesses.

It doesn’t mean this isn’t hard and challenging — of course it is. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic,” said Psaki. “But ultimately, the job of the president of the United States is to lead, is to follow the advice of health experts, is to ensure that he is protecting the lives of people across the country.”

Although SWAPA enforced the idea that the cancellations weren’t due to a pilot sickout alongside Southwest Airlines, they used the operational issues to support their ongoing battle with the airlines over employee rights.

SWAPA has grave concerns about the direction Southwest Airlines has taken in putting profits ahead of people,” said Murray, “Enough is enough. We need leadership, not apologies. We need accountability for those responsible for this months-long debacle. And we need concrete actions taken now to protect our airline, our employees, and our customers.”

Southwest Airlines claimed they resumed normal operations on Wednesday, but the company still must face SWAPA in a legal battle over vaccine mandates and employee rights.