After a nightmarish holiday season that led to thousands of cancelled flights, Southwest Airlines looks set to endure more embarrassment after its pilots called for a strike authorization vote.
The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) announced on January 18 that, having not received a reasonable pay rise offer from Southwest, a “historic” strike authorization vote had been called to begin May 1.
SWAPA’s official statement cited a “lack of meaningful progress on a contract negotiation, with scheduling work rules and information technology asks in particular” as the primary reasons for the strike vote.
SWAPA’s President, Captain Casey Murray, referred to the negotiations with Southwest as “catastrophic”. Capt. Murray ascribed “a failure at every level at Southwest”. When asked about the holiday meltdown that led to thousands of cancellations, he said “Our processes, our IT, our infrastructure just wasn’t there to support the operation, and unfortunately, our customers are bearing the brunt of it”.
Southwest Airlines issued a formal response to SWAPA’s announcement, which read: “SWAPA’s call for an authorization vote does not affect Southwest’s operation or our ability to take care of our Customers.” The spokesperson added, “The union’s potential vote does not hinder our ongoing efforts at the negotiating table”. Southwest Airlines explained that mediation with SWAPA would resume on January 24.
A likely factor in SWAPA feeling that pilots’ pay needs have not been met is Delta Airlines’ announcement in December 2022.
Delta set a new benchmark when they offered their pilots a 34% cumulative pay rise over a three-year period, including a one-time payment equivalent to a cumulative 22% of their earnings between 2020 and 2022 once the deal is ratified. The Delta agreement is also set to award pilots an immediate 18% rise upon signing, according to a draft contract viewed by Reuters sources. It is probable SWAPA will seek a similar deal.
Delta also issued a promise in the deal to exceed pay rates for pilots by 1% compared to that of United and American Airlines. Other airlines, including Southwest, will feel pressure to include similar structures into new payment negotiations, in an effort to retain pilots in the post-COVID-19 travel boom.
Pilot unions have consistently been demanding a better quality of life. Many airlines have struggled to cope with the return of full-scale travel, which has led to staffing and operational issues – in turn, pilots have been forced to work overtime, leaving them exhausted. 25% of Delta’s contract agreement, say union representatives, is dedicated to quality-of-life clauses. The deal proposes ten weeks of paid maternity leave, two weeks of paid parental leave, and a reduction in health insurance premiums.
The union representing Delta pilots said that the deal represents more than $7.2 billion of cumulative value over the next three years. How Southwest will manage to compete with such enormous financial commitments – and how Southwest will be able to negotiate such complex, multi-faceted contracts with an already-frustrated union – remains to be seen.