Southwest Airlines' Customer Service Changes Hit Major Snag Amid Cancellation Criticism

It's been another bad week for Southwest Airlines with a snag in the customer service department's attempts to unionize and a huge mass cancellation of flights. According to a report by ZDNet, the company announced that 20,000 flights scheduled between June and Labor Day had to be canceled. Southwest blames an ongoing shortage of workforce to meet its needs.

Southwest Airlines has been negotiating a new contract with its customer service reps and their union, but last week the workers rejected that deal. It promised them a 6 percent raise, but with an inflation rate around 8 or 9 percent, that was practically a pay cut in the long run. It's unclear if this unexpected hiccup was a factor in Southwest canceling so many summer flights, but the company definitely has a problem hiring and retaining employees.

Earlier this spring, Southwest set a goal of hiring about 10,000 new employees to meet its goals with the expectation that business would be picking back up this summer and the COVID-19 pandemic would be falling by the wayside. However, a Wall Street Journal report found that between 15 and 20 percent of the new employees hired simply never showed up for work. The reason is not clear, although the most obvious explanations are other job offers and sudden illness.

The pandemic remains a major obstacle for airlines as well. This weekend, a Delta Airlines executives told CNBC that "increased COVID case rates" were "contributing to higher-than planned unscheduled absences in some workgroups," which was one reason for mass flight cancellations around the country. However, airlines have generally downplayed the pandemic as a factor in these decisions, perhaps fearing that customers will be scared off travel altogether.

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If the cancellations continue, we can assume that those will scare customers off as well. Travelers do not want to find themselves stranded – even if it's at their vacation destination – with no way home and nowhere to stay. In that sense, Southwest's mass cancellation for the summer is better than the alternative. At the time of this writing, the CDC recommends wearing a mask in any indoor public transportation setting regardless of health or vaccination status. The agency has a long list of recommendations and tools for travelers going on a big trip this summer. Find the latest on its website here.