• Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-700 San Francisco

    Southwest Airlines

    IATA/ICAO Code:

    Airline Type:
    Low-Cost Carrier

    Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, Dallas Love Field, Denver International Airport, Harry Reid International Airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Houston Hobby Airport, Los Angeles International Airport, Midway International Airport, Oakland International Airport, Orlando International Airport, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport

    Year Founded:

    Robert Jordan

    United States

In Nashville, Tennessee, the 9,800-member Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) conducted an informational picket to demand from Southwest Airlines management – in the words of SWAPA President Casey Murray – “…a recognition of the issues we’re facing and our customers face every day.”

“A company that supported its employees to a company supported by its employees”

Southwest employees posing in front of Freedom One

A Southwest Airlines photo of representatives of different Southwest Airlines employee groups posing in front of Southwest Airlines’ Freedom One. Photo: Southwest Airlines

The words of SWAPA President Casey Murray in a recent SWAPA podcast are a sharp contrast from the days of Herb Kelleher, Southwest Airlines’ founder. Kelleher was fond of saying, according to Inc.com,

Your people come first, and if you treat them right, they’ll treat the customers right. … You have to treat your employees like customers.

Murray is committed to restoring the relationship of Southwest Airlines employees being treated as Southwest customers. In protest over that souring relationship, SWAPA members were informational picketing with signs like, “Exploiting Culture is now Southwest Culture” and “Southwest’s Operation: From First to Worst.”

nPhoto: SWAPA”” data-img-url=”https://static1.simpleflyingimages.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/Exploiting-Culture-Is-Now-Southwest-Culture.jpeg” data-modal-container-id=”single-image-modal-container” data-modal-id=”single-image-modal”>

A SWAPA photo from the Sept. 21 Informational Picket

Photo: SWAPA

When Murray was asked to flesh out the assertion about Southwest Airlines that the airline is now a company supported by its employees, Murray said the top issue is that,

You cannot correct a problem with human capital; you have to support those employees. … All frontline employees, you have to give them the tools to do their job.

With Southwest Airlines management only investing in human capital such as hiring and training new people and not also tools like iPads for flight attendants or new equipment for ground crew – the airline is seemingly supported by the employees versus the idealism of Herb Kelleher.

Other major problems to SWAPA members include, according to a recent newsletter:

  • 20,000 days our Pilots have worked involuntarily over the last year
  • 150 open grievances with some Company interpretations bordering on the absurd
  • 947 days since negotiations opened with only one out of 25 sections [reaching an agreement in principle]
  • Millions of dollars in bonuses to the execs in 2020 while 1,221 WARN [ Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification] Notices were delivered [warning of potential layoff]
  • Eight out of 12 union contracts currently open
  • Flight benefits taken from those out on medical

These issues, as previously mentioned on Simple Flying, help explain why the informational picketing is happening. As Murray said in a recent “The SWAPA Number” podcast episode:

Pilots and other frontline employees have had our employment culture weaponized, monetized, and undone by those entrusted to protect and nurture it. We can no longer pretend that what they are fostering is an environment that promotes the values they claim they espouse.

. . .

Doing the pickets is trying to put some pressure as we stand in front of the public and tell them, you know why we are here. … We’re there because our senior leaders are there. And we want to tell them that we’re not happy with the operation or with our culture.

In response to the informational picketing event, a spokesperson for Southwest Airlines said;

Southwest Airlines respects the rights of our Employees to express their opinions. For more than 51 years, we have maintained an award-winning Southwest Culture that honors and celebrates our more than 62,000 valued Employees.

SWAPA upset about the expensive growth of deadheading

Angled Look Down and Forward the Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-700 Cabin

One wonders how many Southwest Airlines pilots may be deadheading in this photo. Photo: Joe Kunzler | Simple Flying

SWAPA is deeply concerned about several specific workplace issues, such as deadheading and fatigue. For instance, according to Murray, who kindly took a Simple Flying interview before the picket,

For about the past five years, we’ve seen the network kind of outgrow the processes that Southwest uses to connect pilots to airplanes. … One of the main focuses of our [contract] rewrite is to try to address some of those inefficiencies.

Scaling the Southwest of 2017 versus 2022 seems appropriate. According to a Southwest Airlines May 22, 2017, statement – Southwest Airlines served 101 airports in the United States plus eight other nations. In a September 11, 2022, statement, Southwest Airlines claimed to serve 121 airports in 10 different countries plus the United States.

Nonetheless, with 121 airports to connect, Southwest Airlines has had problems assigning pilots to flights. According to Murray, deadheading – or a pilot flying as a passenger to connect to another flight to actually fly the other flight – has gone from 75 to sometimes 1,500 daily deadheads. Up to 66% of those deadheads can fail, an enormous number considering every pilot deadheading is away from their personal life and not producing revenue.

Around October 11, 2021 (Columbus Day), over 1,100 pilots on duty did not actually touch a yoke and throttle to fly a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 aircraft. One should also note that around $50,000 has been invested per pilot by Southwest Airlines to train to the Southwest way. Such is the severity of the deadheading problem, according to SWAPA.

Murray argues that the deadheading problem arises from a scheduling system developed in 1994; a system that predates several key US federal regulations.

Fatigue is also a problem for Southwest Airlines pilots

nPhoto: spablab via Flickr“” data-img-url=”https://static1.simpleflyingimages.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/26600824625_29390d0ee4_k.jpg” data-modal-container-id=”single-image-modal-container” data-modal-id=”single-image-modal”>

Last Light of the Night

A Southwest Airlines aircraft flying into the night.

Photo: spablab via Flickr

One of those critical regulations is Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) Part 117, which became law on Jan. 4, 2012, and specifies the minimum rest period for aircrew flying for a US airline. It’s worth noting here that Under Part 121 is section 471, which places hard caps on flight time for all US “commercial flying” of:

  • 1,000 hours in any calendar year;
  • 100 hours in any calendar month;
  • 30 hours in any seven consecutive days;
  • 8 hours between required rest periods.

The 2012 law also has tables specifying such limits. A circa 1994 scheduling system is not calculating the duty requirements. Furthermore, 2021 was a record year of fatigue reports for Southwest Airlines. But as of the end of August 2022, the 2022 year-to-date fatigue reports, according to Murray, exceeded that.

Pilot fatigue has become a growing issue of concern for not just Southwest Airlines but also other carriers, including Delta Air Lines. Nonetheless, SWAPA has written an open letter and taken other actions to demand CEO Robert Jordan take action to stop the climb of necessary fatigue reports from SWAPA members.

Loss of the psychic wage

nPhoto: Joe Kunzler | Simple Flying”” data-img-url=”https://static1.simpleflyingimages.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/Half_Size_of__Debbie-on-the-Phone-Looking-at-the-Ramp_2022-06-07_05–10_CardD_0763-Edit_01.jpg” data-modal-container-id=”single-image-modal-container” data-modal-id=”single-image-modal”>

Southwest Flight Attendant on the Phone Looking at the Ramp

One of Southwest Airlines’ many flight attendants watching the boarding ramp for stragglers, helping provide the customer service Southwest Airlines is known for.

Photo: Joe Kunzler | Simple Flying

For Murray, the Southwest Airlines culture came with a “psychic wage.” The psychic wage is a non-financial payout to the employee where the employee feels that their contribution to the organization is self-worth. As Murray has written;

Working for the most admired airline in the world (and one of the most admired companies in corporate America) carried a satisfaction all its own. Today, being viewed by management as little more than cost units, risk factors, and revenue generators (although large ones at that!) affects us each differently.

The fact that wages are noncompetitive with other airlines is also a problem. So too is the lack of investment in tools to help the workforce – whether updating scheduling for pilots and flight attendants or iPads & iPhones for cabin crew. Ultimately, the sentiment fueling informational picketing is, “Our passengers and pilots deserve better.”

nPhoto: SWAPA”” data-img-url=”https://static1.simpleflyingimages.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/Our-Passengers-and-Pilots-Deserve-Better.jpeg” data-modal-container-id=”single-image-modal-container” data-modal-id=”single-image-modal”>

Our Passengers and Pilots Deserve Better

SWAPA members demanding better working conditions and passenger experience.

Photo: SWAPA

In a recent members’ newsletter, Murray also expounded that the company culture party in Nashville is executives “effectively normalizing our current operational dysfunction and contractual inaction.” Hence, SWAPA felt the need to informationally picket.

nPhoto: Joe Kunzler | Simple Flying”” data-img-url=”https://static1.simpleflyingimages.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/Half_Size_of__Sunrise-Over-Bellingham-and-a-Southwest-737-Wing_2022-06-07_05–30_CardD_0777_01.jpg” data-modal-container-id=”single-image-modal-container” data-modal-id=”single-image-modal”>

Sunrise Over Bellingham and a Southwest 737 Wing

Southwest 737 flying taking off from Bellingham, WA during sunrise – perhaps symbolic of what mediation can bring to labor negotiations.

Photo: Joe Kunzler | Simple Flying

Mediation has also been requested for SWAPA’s negotiations with the Southwest Airlines management. For Murray, this is about getting “adult supervision” in the talks to hasten a fair result to reflect “our concern for the future of Southwest Airlines” versus management representation that comes unprepared and lacks data in rebuttal to SWAPA concerns.

A Southwest Airlines spokesperson issued this statement in response:

Southwest is eager to continue moving negotiations forward with the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) so that we can reward our Pilots and continue attracting great People. As the negotiation process nears its third year, including a 13-months long pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, mediation will be beneficial to guide and facilitate our discussions. We look forward to working with the National Mediation Board and SWAPA on the next steps in the process.

One can only hope mediation is beneficial. As Herb Kelleher once said, according to Inc.com, “The business of business is people.”

Do you think mediation will resolve the issues outlined above? Let us know with civility in the comments, please.

Sources: Code of Federal Regulations FAR Part 117, May 22, 2017, Southwest Airlines Statement, Inc.com, September 11, 2022, Southwest Airlines Statement

Source: simpleflying.com

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