The Southwest Airlines pilots union is calling for a strike authorization vote in May in the wake of the Dallas-based carrier’s epic holiday meltdown.
Union president Casey Murray described it as a “historic action” that follows the Christmastime fiasco and an “utter lack of meaningful progress on a contract negotiation, with scheduling work rules and information technology asks in particular, that has been ongoing for more than three years.”
“It’s scheduling,” Murray said. “It is their inability to understand how they got here and what they need to do to correct it.”
The Southwest Airlines Pilot Association represents more than 10,000 pilots, who will begin voting May 1 on authorizing a strike. Union members gave their leaders authority in December to call for a vote.
The voting falls between two key travel periods – spring break and the start of summer – for the nation’s largest domestic carrier. Southwest Airlines operates about 4,000 flights a day carrying as many as 700,000 passengers.
Southwest Airlines vice president of labor relations Adam Carlisle said the strike authorization “does not have a bearing on our work at the negotiating table.”
“The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association’s call for an authorization vote does not affect Southwest’s operation or our ability to take care of our customers,” Carlisle said. “We will continue to follow the process outlined in the Railway Labor Act and work, under the assistance of the National Mediation Board, toward reaching an agreement that rewards our pilots and places them competitively in the industry.”
It’s the first time that the union for pilots at Southwest Airlines called for a strike authorization, although the union has taken other steps toward striking as recently as 2015 before the two sides came to a deal on a new contract in late 2016.
All four major airlines are negotiating with pilots, including Fort Worth-based American Airlines. Pilots are looking at raises of 20 to 30% over the next four years based on contract proposals pushed by Delta, United and American. The Allied Pilots Association representing American Airlines pilots has also complained about crew scheduling issues, although Southwest’s meltdown in December is the most significant cancellation event in recent years.
Murray said union leaders had many discussions on the timing of the vote.
“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 said in a statement.
It’s difficult for pilots to actually strike. Pilots are prohibited from walking out without approval from federal labor officials.
“It is not a decision we have taken lightly, but given the trajectory of our current leadership group, we have little faith in the stability and future of our airline,” Murray said.
Southwest Airlines canceled more than 16,700 flights in late December after its flight rescheduling system buckled and broke after a winter storm hit two major airports for the carrier, leaving pilots and flight attendants without flights, hotels and transportation or the ability to contact the company under heavy strain on phone systems.
Pilots and flight attendants, who are also in negotiations with Southwest, have been calling on the carrier to revamp its crew scheduling system for years. CEO Bob Jordan said Southwest is planning updates to the GE-developed software program used the reschedule flights after delays and cancellations.
Southwest, pilots and flight attendants are working with federal meditators to move the contract process along, although Murray said he doesn’t think the company is taking talks seriously, particularly about crew scheduling issues.
The two sides have been talking about a new contract since before the COVID-19 pandemic, although talks slowed because of economic uncertainty. They’re set to resume negotiations with a federal mediator on Jan. 24.