Southwest Declares Emergency In Denver, No One To Work The Ramp

I’ve had several readers ask why Southwest Airlines is cancelling so many more flights than other carriers this holiday, and why their operation in Denver is worse than United’s – so it’s not just weather. I initially assumed that the way Southwest routes its planes – throughout its system, rather than isolating them with back-and-forths – tends to cause cancellations across the system when there are localized disruptions.

However it turns out they’re having a bigger problem in Denver. There are a lack of employees working the ramp. As aviation watchdog JonNYC reports, Southwest has declared an emergency there, and it’s extreme. The airline is threatening to fire employees who call out sick without a doctor’s note and telemedicine appointments with doctors won’t even be accepted. The memo begins by referring to rampers’ “alleged” illnesses.

Things seem to be going well at southwest

— 🇺🇦 JonNYC 🇺🇦 (@xJonNYC) December 24, 2022

The state of operational emergency that’s requiring everyone to show up at work, including mandatory overtime, is not working. Here’s one flight in particular that was turned around on its way to Denver on December 22 because the airline lacked rampers to receive it, which JonNYC brings to our attention.

this SW flight had to turn around and go back to Tampa as there were no rampers at DEN available for it to land there:

— 🇺🇦 JonNYC 🇺🇦 (@xJonNYC) December 24, 2022

It’s unclear what caused the staff shortage initially, but one unconfirmed explanation is mass resignations.

Someone reports: “There's a rumor that 100 plus Southwest Rampers in Denver quit”

— 🇺🇦 JonNYC 🇺🇦 (@xJonNYC) December 24, 2022

However according to the airline,

Due to the conditions, we’ve been rotating ramp crews to limit exposing our People for an extended period. As this requires essentially double the Employees to turn an aircraft, we’ve reduced our operation at DEN until temperatures rise. We’re optimistic today’s and the future weather forecast looks more promising.

Denver has faced extreme temperatures below zero over the past several days, though it’s currently expected to rise above freezing this morning.

I’ve never personally seen planes turned around while enroute due to lack of rampers to receive them. Southwest led the world in cancellations on Friday with 1334 or 32 of its schedule (half of its flights were delayed). Denver had the third-most cancellations of any airport across all airlines with 251, though far behind leader Seattle with 363. Already today Southwest has cancelled more flights than other U.S. airlines.

There’s a clear shortage of rampers, and some of it is no doubt due to the cold – people can’t stay outside as long in extreme cold, so more staff would be needed than normal to handle the same number of flights. But reports from within the airline are that there simply haven’t been any rampers available, and one flight was even turned around, operating a four hour flight to nowhere as a result.

Southwest is imposing extreme measures that result in crew showing up even when sick, as an in-person doctor’s appointment and note are required to justify any absence. Is it even possible to get a doctor’s appointment on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning? And if a ramper gets sick and follows up with a doctor a couple of days later, will it be possible to get an attestation that they were symptomatic on their first date of absence? The uncertainty alone, with threat of termination, could pressure employees to show up sick in extreme temperatures, while infecting each other.

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