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Southwest Airlines Pilots Ready to Picket Over Frustration & Chaos of Summer

Date: August 20, 2021

By Kyle Arnold, The Dallas Morning News

The union for Southwest Airlines pilots has authorized its members to hold picketing demonstrations over what they call unfair working conditions this summer.

Leaders of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association say members have repeatedly been forced into working additional days of flying, been stuck without hotels and transportation, and are dealing with flight schedules that have constantly been reshuffled as the airline struggles to keep up with the uptick in flying demand this summer.

The complaints come in a video sent to pilots this week, saying that the demonstrations could happen in the fourth quarter “should Southwest Airlines continue its current trajectory,” said SWAPA president Casey Murray.

“We are finishing trips and then being asked to come back on for two more days and then a day or two after that,” Murray said.

The letter comes two days after the union for Southwest flight attendants, TWU Local 556, said members are “weary, exhausted, frustrated and forgotten” by the airline’s attempts to increase flying during the COVID-19 pandemic.

After flying a drastically reduced schedule for the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Southwest Airlines ramped up flying this summer to keep up with the increase in passenger demand. Southwest scheduled about 87% of the flights for July 2021 as it did in the same month two years ago, according to Diio by Cirium.

In a statement, Southwest vice president of flight operations Bob Waltz said the airline and travel industry have seen a multitude of operational challenges as we navigate the effects of the pandemic.

“We have teams across the airline working diligently to adapt to the current environment and support our employees during this peak travel season, including efforts focused on providing support to our pilots,” Waltz said. “We routinely work with the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association on a variety of matters that affect our pilots, but we also have a responsibility to consider a number of factors before implementation of suggestions.”

That increase in flying, after running schedules less than half of historical norms last year, has caused problems with delays and cancellations, crew member unions have said. Those operational problems have resulted in fewer available pilots and flight attendants.

Murray, who sent a letter earlier this month to Southwest complaining about conditions and a lack of negotiation on issues like vaccinations, said the union’s board authorized $1 million to spend on picketing and a promotional campaign to highlight their grievances.

“Our fatigue rates are through the roof,” Murray said.

The union has repeatedly offered suggestions to make staffing more efficient, but Murray said Southwest has not implemented any of those ideas.

Unions at American Airlines have complained about similar problems with schedules, hotels, transportation and food availability as the entire air travel system has seemed to struggle to get back to normal flying conditions this summer. Those problems are compounded by staffing shortages at airport restaurants and stores, hotels and other services needed for crews on trips.

SWAPA also wants help from Southwest Airlines to ensure that pilots are able to get vaccinated without jeopardizing their licenses to fly commercial jets. The FAA puts very strict health restrictions on commercial pilots before they fly, and Murray said vaccination rates are very low among pilots because of fears of reactions to the vaccines.

Southwest has said it is not mandating that employees be vaccinated but is encouraging it.

Southwest has also had its own problems with staffing, company executives have said. This week, Southwest told employees that it would start offering a $300 referral bonus for new employees.

The picketing authorization does not mean pilots will walk off the job, nor will they start demonstrating immediately. Pilots are prohibited by federal law from organizing a full strike that includes withholding labor. The union will decide in the coming weeks whether it wants to start demonstrating at airports soon.

 

 

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