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Calm Before The Storm: Southwest Flight Attendants Face Brutal Lay-Offs After Winning New Contract

On Wednesday 24 April, Southwest Airlines flight attendants voted at last to ratify a new contract with their union, the Transport Workers Union Local 556 (TWU). The landmark contract will give flight attendants an immediate 22% raise, with TWU claiming this makes Southwest’s flight attendants the highest paid in the industry.  

Southwest flight attendants had been fighting for a new contract since 2019.

The following day, Southwest announced in a statement that it would be cutting 2,000 jobs and ceasing operations at four different airports: Bellingham International Airport, Cozumel International Airport, Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport, and Syracuse Hancock International Airport.  


“I want to sincerely thank our employees, the airports, and the communities for all their incredible support over the years,” said the carrier.  


“And, we are implementing cost control initiatives, including limiting hiring and offering voluntary time off programs. We now expect to end 2024 with approximately 2,000 fewer Employees as compared with the end of 2023.” 


It is anyone’s guess how “approximate” the choice of 2,000 job cuts really is – it could indeed be more.  


The unfortunate announcement came as Southwest publicized their unprecedented first quarter loss, which itself came to a considerably wider loss than in the same period last year.  


These cut backs are designed in part to address the “significant challenges” caused by delays in Boeing aircraft deliveries, with Southwest being the world’s largest operator of Boeing 737 Max airplanes.  


The global aircraft manufacturer, Boeing, has faced a sprawling safety crisis since the start of 2024, following the infamous Alaska Airlines door blowout incident. On January 5, the door plug fell off Alaska Airlines flight 1282 midair, causing the door to blowout. Frightened passengers managed to capture footage of the hole where the door had been:

Southwest was announcing plans to trim capacity already in early March, citing delivery delays from Boeing.  


In its quarterly filing last week, Southwest said they expect only 20 Boeing 737 Max 8 planes to be delivered – that’s less than half its previous forecast of 46.  


Fewer aircraft and fewer operational airports for the carrier will unquestionably mean fewer flights. This, in turn, will mean less work across the board – unless significant cuts come into force. Whether out of a job, on unpaid leave, or with fewer hours, a large proportion of Southwest’s flight attendants are now unlikely to reap the proper rewards of their new landmark contract.  


There has been no word yet from TWU on how it intends to protect its members from these cuts, having fought for years to achieve a deal comparable to non-unionized flight attendants at Delta.  


Meanwhile, American Airlines have also posted a net loss in their Q1 results, announcing an operational deficit of $312 million.  


“Demand for travel remains strong, including among business flyers, but airlines are dealing with higher labor costs, and delays in getting new aircraft from Boeing are limiting their ability to add more flights,” wrote AP News’ David Koenig.  


AA cited an 18% rise in labor costs – equal to nearly $660 million – as a significant factor behind their losses.  

The airline said it expects to return to profitability in the second quarter, which is typically a busier time for travel. 

However, unlike Southwest flight attendants, American Airlines flight attendants remain without a contract, pushing for strike action. 

The Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) union, which represents circa 27,000 American flight attendants, have been unable to secure a new contract in over four years. 

Over 4,000 employees tuned in to American CEO Robert Isom’s “State Of The Airline” address last Thursday. During the presentation, Isom spelled out AA’s plan to replicate Delta’s industry-leading pay package for flight attendants, which was boosted by a further 5% pay rise in April.  

Robert Isom assumed the role of CEO at American Airlines in March 2022, following a stint as President.

During the Q&A that followed, APFA President Julie Hedrick claimed that the new industry standard should be Southwest Airlines’ new contract. Isom responded that Southwest has a very different contract to Delta and insisted that, despite work rules and network, Southwest flight attendants’ take-home pay is not actually higher than at Delta. 

With the looming cut backs, this discrepancy will soon become academic for at least 2,000 of those Southwest workers.  

After Hedrick pressed Isom to instruct his team to include Southwest Airlines in their economic analysis, he responded “I’m not going to tell you I’m going to do something that I won’t do,” and said he wouldn’t engage in “cherry picking.” Hedrick then stormed out.

A deal still looks far from completion for American Airlines flight attendants.  


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