Last week, Southwest Airlines reached a “tentative deal” with the Transport Workers Union Local 556, which represents over 19,000 Southwest flight attendants.
Flight attendants are demanding higher pay and an improvement to working conditions. In particular the union wants the airline to address unpredictable schedules and the difficulties for flight attendants getting to work during periods of disruption. This was particularly pronounced during Southwest’s ‘meltdown’ over the Christmas holidays in 2022, which resulted in 16,700 flights being cancelled.
The tentative deal would see Southwest’s flight attendants receive a 36% cumulative pay increase over a period of five years, according to details of the agreement shared with crews on Wednesday. The new deal includes an initial 20% raise in January at the deal’s signing and 3% thereafter, plus retroactive raises going back to late 2019, according to a union message to flight attendants.
The deal, however, is subject to ratification by the union’s members. Flight attendants are scheduled to begin voting on the tentative agreement in mid-November.
Southwest flight attendants have not seen a pay rise since before the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in a resentful, long-standing feud between the airline and its staff.
This ongoing disagreement is not new but signifies the growing trend of protracted union negotiations amongst most major US airlines. Flight attendants at American Airlines and United are locked in similar negotiations with seemingly no end in sight.
The Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) is now demanding a 50% pay raise over the course of a four-year contract for cabin crew at American Airlines after the carrier offered a mere 11% increase, rising by 2% for the following four years. No agreement has yet been reached and APFA have expressed a likelihood of enacting CHAOS strikes (“Create Havoc Around Our System”) over the Thanksgiving period.
Flight attendants at all major US carriers have union representation except Delta Air Lines. Nevertheless, Delta flight attendants have received two salary raises in the last 18 months. Meanwhile, flight attendants at other major carriers remain bogged down in a quagmire of union negotiations.
According to Flight Attendant Professionals, the average hourly rate for a flight attendant in their first six months (as of August 2023) is $27.11, increasing with respect to time of service. Southwest’s hourly rate for new flight attendants comes slightly above average ($28.91), whilst American’s is a little higher ($30.35). Both sit behind Delta Air Lines ($32.20), which leads the pack. After 12 years, this scales up to $68.82, $68.25, and $72.38 respectively – this calculation is based on minimum hours.
On average, Delta’s flight attendants are currently paid $5,400 more per year than peers at United, American, and Southwest.
This pay differential, coupled with at times challenging hours has prompted staff across several major airlines to threaten strike action. At the end of August, American Airlines flight attendants through APFA voted by an overwhelming 99.47% to authorize strike action.
Since then, the situation at American has only worsened over the past month, particularly in view of the airline’s apparently unsympathetic response to the mysterious death of one of their flight attendants on 25 September.
October, however, seemed to end with some good news – for one union at least. On 25 October, Southwest became the first major US carrier to achieve any advance in a deal with its flight attendant union since 2019.
However, the union must now put the deal to its members and advise a voting timeline on whether to accept or decline Southwest’s proposal. There is no guarantee this proposal will be accepted by the other party.
In fact, given previous failures, the prospect of success seems unlikely – but one can only hope.