Southwest Airlines is investigating a pilot who brought politics onto the plane.
On a Friday morning flight from Houston to Albuquerque, the unnamed pilot used the controversial phrase “Let’s go, Brandon” over the public address system, according to an Associated Press reporter who was on the flight.
There were “audible gasps” from some passengers, according to the AP.
The story went viral prompting Southwest to issue a statement Sunday announcing the investigation.
“The Southwest team takes pride in providing a welcoming, comfortable, safe, and respectful environment for the millions of customers who fly with us each year,” the statement said. “Southwest does not condone employees sharing their personal political opinions while on the job serving our customers, and one employee’s individual perspective should not be interpreted as the viewpoint of Southwest and its collective 54,000 employees.”
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The airline said it is conducting an internal investigation into the event and “will address the situation with any employee involved.” The airline offered no details on the investigation and did not say whether the pilot is on leave.
The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), the union representing the airline’s pilots, had no comment, citing the investigation.
Southwest said it will continue to remind employees that “public expression of personal opinions while on duty is unacceptable.”
What does ‘Let’s go, Brandon’ mean
The phrase “Let’s go, Brandon” took off after an Oct. 2 incident at a NASCAR race in Alabama won by Brandon Brown, a 28-year-old driver who was being interviewed by an NBC Sports reporter.
The crowd behind Brown was chanting something, and the reporter suggested they were saying “Let’s go, Brandon” to cheer the driver. But it became increasingly clear to viewers that they were saying, “F— Joe Biden.”
The phrase has become a rallying cry for those against vaccine mandates and was mentioned frequently on social media during Southwest’s meltdown in early October by those blaming the mass flight cancellations on pilot opposition to the mandate. (The airline and its pilots union denied the cancellations were the result of a pilot protest.)
Southwest’s pilots union had warned pilots to keep distractions out of the cockpit
The incident witnessed by The Associated Press on the Southwest flight to Albuquerque occurred less than a month after the pilots union issued a “safety message” to pilots about avoiding distractions in the cockpit. In an Oct. 9 memo, the union said increased fatigue has been a distraction among pilots this year as travel surged and staffing levels couldn’t keep up. A vaccine mandate for federal contractors that was announced in early October, the memo said, “only exacerbates” the situation. Southwest’s largest customer is the federal government.
“We are not here to debate the merits of the vaccine mandate. We are here to emphasize that the focus of each SWAPA pilot must be on operating the aircraft at the highest levels of safety in the industry,” the union memo said. “There is absolutely nothing more important or sacred.”
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There is high-profile resistance to the mandates at many companies, including Southwest, and the issue has divided workers. Some Southwest employees have publicly protested the mandate, and the pilots union tried to get the vaccine mandate blocked in federal court but lost that bid last week.
The White House vaccine mandate deadline for airlines to comply is nevertheless approaching on Nov. 24 – a busy travel day in itself. (The actual deadline is Dec. 8, but airlines set a date two weeks early given that workers aren’t fully vaccinated until two weeks after their last shot.)
Southwest to pilot, flight attendants: ‘It is vital that we treat everyone with respect’
Two Southwest executives sent a lengthy memo with the subject line “Shared values” to pilots and flight attendants on Oct. 22 reminding them to be civil to each other. The memo came from Bob Waltz, vice president of flight operations, and Sonya Lacore, vice president of infight operations.
“Many of our people have been faced with an uncomfortable situation where their beliefs are not shared by someone else, resulting in a confrontation of some kind,” the memo said. “And for every situation we hear about, there are dozens more for which we don’t. It is vital that we treat everyone with respect and honor our differences without pushing our ideals on someone else.
“We want to be sure everyone is aware of expectations because the unfortunate reality is, crossing the line in a heated conversation can be a violation of our guidelines for employees and can even end in loss of job.”
Southwest spokesperson Brandy King told USA TODAY the memo was not sparked by a single incident. But in response to questions from USA TODAY about an alleged incident between a pilot and flight attendant over masks at a crew hotel in northern California shortly before the memo went out, King acknowledged that there was a “crew disagreement” on a recent overnight trip.
“We are handling the situation utilizing our internal process,” King said.
SWAPA President Casey Murray has declined to comment on the matter. Union spokesperson Amy Robinson also declined comment Monday, citing an ongoing investigation.
Contributing: The Associated Press