And so those engaged in this great and invented struggle against what they say are the forced injections of Americans look for heroes. Over the weekend, some were identified: unnamed pilots at Southwest Airlines who refused to fly, protesting their employer’s mandate that they be vaccinated against the coronavirus. A glut of flights canceled by the airline was attributed to a work stoppage and, in short order, those protesting pilots became a symbol of the new American cold war. Here, at last, are the freedom fighters opposing “Josef” Biden (even though the not-actually-a-mandate announced by Biden isn’t yet in place and the mandate at Southwest comes from the company, not the government).
There’s one other problem. The celebration of these anti-mandate pilots is suffering from a remarkable dearth of evidence that the delays were to any significant degree, if at all, a function of pilots choosing not to work.
An exchange between Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and a reporter for the Houston Chronicle is a good synopsis of the rhetorical fight. Cruz declared Sunday evening on Twitter that the cancellation of hundreds of Southwest flights was a function of “Joe Biden’s illegal vaccine mandate.” He linked to an article at CNBC that made no claim that America was suddenly “short on pilots & air traffic controllers,” as Cruz claimed. Instead, the article noted that there was “speculation on social media” that it was a response from pilots to vaccine mandates.
That “Dem propagandist” dig is telling, though. For Cruz, an effort to contextualize his unsubstantiated claims is definitionally an effort to aid his political opponents. It’s not only that Cruz is glomming onto this conservative-guerillas-fighting-the-leftist-autocracy framing for airplanes not flying, it’s that he is framing an effort to evaluate his claims against reality with another volley in the partisan cold war.
Ideally, this is a country that operates on a shared set of facts. But we’re obviously far from that ideal and, instead, we are now a country that operates on disconnected sets of assumptions. For politicians such as Cruz, that’s useful: If something is gaining traction with his base of supporters and donors, there’s no real obligation for him to press the brakes.
What we know about the Southwest cancellations is that they were, in fact, unusual. Data obtained by the air-travel blog Cranky Flier shows a big spike in cancellations in recent days. But there was a similar (though smaller) spike over the summer, too. The author notes that claims about a work stoppage are “unfounded,” instead pointing at disorganization at the airline.
“[T]he blame should largely be heaped back on the operational organization,” the author writes. “Like Spirit back during the summer, Southwest seems to have lost track of its crews. The internal memo paints a picture of chaos, with those in charge of crew hotels scrambling — and in some cases failing — to find accommodation for crews scattered all over the country.”
Southwest, its pilot union and the Federal Aviation Administration have all separately denied any work action. The Dallas Morning News, essentially Southwest’s hometown paper, compared the cancellations to those experienced by other airlines in the wake of the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The airline’s original explanation that the delays were related to air-traffic-control issues and weather appear to be about delays at the control center in Jacksonville, Fla. A reporter in that city, Ben Becker, obtained a statement that acknowledged staffing shortages in part of the control center, both from approved leave and staffers following a mandate to stay home for 48 hours after receiving vaccine doses. An FAA statement mentioned that shortage along with weather and training exercises as causes for delays in flights Friday, which then spread to the weekend. (The “bad weather” rationale has been widely disparaged by those embracing the stoppage theory, but there were storms over central Florida that afternoon.)
As is usually the case in such situations, there’s no shortage of anecdotal claims about a work stoppage both at Southwest and in Jacksonville. It may be the case that a number of pilots did in fact choose not to work to protest the company’s mandate. The pilots’ union filed a lawsuit to block the mandate last week. Perhaps some pilots sought to send a message now, in this way; perhaps the airline, despite repeatedly denying any work stoppage, got that message. In a “Good Morning America” interview Tuesday, Southwest’s chief executive said that the airline was “not going to fire any employees over this,” which, if he believes there was an intentional stoppage, seems like a very generous response.
The point is that the rumors have far outpaced the evidence. It’s become an article of faith that the cancellations were a function of opposition to vaccines, in part because so many people want to believe that there are people willing to sacrifice their jobs in opposition to the vaccines. (There clearly are, but far fewer than polling at one point indicated.) In his response, Cruz draws an unintentionally good analogy, suggesting that Jordan is denying reality just as the media rejected the theory that the coronavirus emerged from a lab, itself an assertion now taken as an article of faith on the right despite a dearth of evidence. But the Southwest rumors are more potent; the idea of an individualist — no less a pilot, that avatar of daring and freedom! — standing athwart the will of the oppressive government is too compelling to let something as base as evidence hold it down.
A lie gets halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its boots on. But an engaging rumor that aligns with partisan preferences moves faster still, instantly available in every Twitter feed and Facebook page on Earth.