Southwest Airlines pilots vote to strike in wake of operational meltdown

Southwest Airlines' pilot union indicated it will vote whether to strike following the carrier's operational meltdown and stalling contract negotiations
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Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) announced that the pre-eminent union of the airline’s pilots will vote on whether to strike on May 1, 2023. The decision was made in the wake of the carrier’s recent operational meltdown between the holidays, and also takes into account a lack of progress with contract negotiations. 

SWAPA issued a call for a strike authorization vote from the Association’s membership. The action was the direct result of “Southwest’s largest meltdown and the utter lack of meaningful progress on a contract negotiation, with scheduling work rules and information technology asks in particular”. According to the union, the issues have been present for more than three years. 

“While your Board of Directors and Executive Officers have had many strategic discussions on timing, I think it is best to consider what our customers have been through over the past several years and the past several weeks,” stated Casey Murray, the President of SWAPA. Murray pointed out that the leadership team’s inaction to rectify problems experienced by both passengers and employees has forced the union to make this decision that is “afforded to us by the Railway Labor Act”. 

The union will vote on whether to go ahead with the strike on May 1, 2023. Votes will be counted at the end of the month, without indicating a date on when the pilots would take industrial action. 

“We believe that May 1 provides a date that allows our union time to prepare and gives our customers time to book elsewhere, so that they can have confidence that their summer vacations, honeymoons, and family outings are assured,” Murray added, noting that the decision “was not taken lightly”. 

“[…] given the trajectory of our current leadership group, we have little faith in the stability and future of our airline,” Murray concluded.  

Southwest Airlines experienced an operational meltdown between December 21, and December 31, 2022. Following harsh weather, the carrier’s processes could not restart properly, resulting in the airline canceling more than 16,700 flights over the course of 10 days. In an update to investors, Southwest Airlines indicated that it was now expecting a Q4 2022 loss, “driven by a preliminary estimated fourth quarter 2022 pre-tax negative impact in the range of $725 million to $825 million”. 

The lost revenue is estimated at between $400 and $425 million, while the remaining sum is estimated travel expense reimbursements, value of Rapid Rewards points, and premium pay and compensation for the airline’s employees. The impact was partially negated by lower fuel prices, as well as profit-sharing expenses. 

SWAPA, meanwhile, issued a statement on December 28, 2022, calling the meltdown a “systemic failure of Southwest Airlines leaders to modernize, support, and staff its operation leaves every frontline employee, Pilots included, tired of apologizing to our passengers”. 

“The holiday meltdown has been blamed on weather that had been forecast five days prior, but this problem began many years ago when the complexity of our network outgrew its ability to withstand meteorological and technological disruptions,” the statement added.  

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