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Picture shows Gadsden flag hanging from apparent Southwest airplane amid pilot anti-vaccine mandate movement

The Gadsden and American flags. (Shal Farley/Flickr)
October 12, 2021

A Gadsden flag was reportedly hung out of the cockpit window of a Southwest Airlines plane this week amid speculation that more than 1,000 flights were canceled as a result of airline employees protesting the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.  

“This photo was just sent to me of a grounded Southwest plane flying a Gadsden flag out of the cockpit. The Hero Pilots at Southwest and other Airlines deserve our support,” Podcast host Benny Johnson tweeted on Monday. “True patriots worthy of the American Freedom Fighter tradition. Don’t Tread On Me. God Bless Them.”

Over the weekend, Southwest Airlines canceled over 800 flights on Saturday and saw more than 1,100 delays. Another 1,000 flights were canceled on Sunday, and more than 300 on Monday, according to Fox Business. The chaotic cancellations that appeared to only impact Southwest prompted widespread speculation that a vaccine mandate-related protest was causing the issues.

On Monday evening, Fox News host Tucker Carlson interviewed pilot Joshua Yoder regarding rumors that Southwest employees had engaged in a “sickout,” a coordinated plan for all employees to call in sick as a form of protest.

Yoder is also the co-founder of US Freedom Flyers, a company that describes itself as “a group of transportation industry employees who have come together to fight federal and state mandates which aim to strip Citizens of their right to medical freedom.”

While Yoder did not confirm or deny the weekends’ cancellations were caused by a protest, he did say “we have all the control” which comes from “a simple word, and that’s ‘no.’”

“We just don’t need to comply. As far as I’m concerned, I will never promote a sickout or a work action, that is illegal. With US Freedom Flyers, the organization that I’m with, we will never promote such a thing,” Yoder said. “With that being said, we also cannot control the actions of individuals. I think that you will see massive disruptions in your supply chair and in travel if we just stand up and say no. If these companies fire us and they fire 30 percent of the workforce, aircraft are going to stop moving.”

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly told CNBC Tuesday morning that while the vaccine mandate is a contentious issue among Southwest employees, it was not the reason behind the weekend’s disruptions.

“If you go back to Friday, basically the FAA had a series of delay programs that were implemented that covered all of Florida, every single one of our stations, including a seven-hour ground stop at Orlando, you’ll have to ask the FAA what was the cause of all of that,” Kelly explained. “But about half of our airplanes touch the state of Florida. We’re one of the largest airlines in the country, so by the end of the day, we had significant numbers of airplanes and flight crews that were totally out of position. And as any aviation expert knows, it just takes several days to get everything back aligned. So we had a pretty good day yesterday, far fewer cancelations than what we were experiencing Saturday and Sunday, and today was pretty much shaping up to be a normal day.”

Turning to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, Kelly said the airline’s employees “have very strong views on both sides of that issue.” The CEO said President Joe Biden has forced the company’s hand when it comes to requiring the vaccine, noting that he has “never been in favor of corporations imposing that kind of a mandate.”

“I’m not in favor of that. Never have been. But the executive order from President Biden mandates that all federal employees, and then all federal contractors, which covers all the major airlines, have to have a vaccine in place by December 8. So, we’re working through that,” Kelly said. “We’re urging our employees to get vaccinated. If they can’t, we’re urging them to seek an accommodation, either for medical or religious reasons, but my goal is obviously that no one loses their job. The objective here obviously is to improve health and safety, not for people to lose their jobs.”

“Yes, we have some very strong views on that topic, but that’s not what was an issue with Southwest over the weekend.”