Hundreds of Southwest pilots picket Dallas amid summer travel crisis

DALLAS – Hundreds of Southwest Airlines uniformed pilots stood in neat lines under the scorching Texas sun at Dallas Love Field on Tuesday, holding up signs blaming Southwest management for delays and cancellations that bothered passengers.

Every now and then, a driver would honk or shout encouragement. Most passengers went straight to the security checkpoint inside the terminal.

The protest, which the union said attracted 1,300 pilots, was the latest example of airline workers trying to pressure companies by taking their demands for higher wages directly to the flying public.

Federal law makes it nearly impossible for airline unions to carry out legal strikes. Contract negotiations tend to drag on – often for years. southwestern LUV,
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Flight attendants have been working under an old contract since 2018.

This slow pace makes unions look for creative ways to put pressure on management. Sometimes they vote to authorize a strike — Alaska Airlines ALK,
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the pilots did this last month – although there is little chance that they will abandon the job.

Last week, the Airline Pilots Association, or ALPA, posted an open letter to Delta Air Lines DAL,
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customers, saying its members sympathized with travelers whose flights were delayed or canceled and blaming Delta management. The union said Delta scheduled more flights than pilots to fly, and pilots were working record overtime.

Earlier this month, American Airlines AAL,
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pilots picketed near the New York Stock Exchange and, before that, at major airports. Some held up signs like, “Frustrated with AA? So do we.”

Airline unions are hoping to take advantage of strong travel demand this summer to get pay and benefit increases.

United Airlines UAL,
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reached an agreement with ALPA last month. Terms were not disclosed, but likely included higher salaries – the United CEO called it an industry-leading proposal. The agreement still needs to be ratified by the pilots.

Two American regional subsidiaries will give pilots a 50% salary premium through August 2024, in addition to a long-term raise. So-called regional carriers, which operate American Eagle, Delta Connection and United Express flights, are being hit hardest by the lack of pilots.

On Tuesday, at Love Field, which is adjacent to Southwest’s headquarters, pilots in white short-sleeved shirts with epaulettes on their shoulders stood at attention, holding signs that read “Southwest Operation: From First to Worst” and “Our passengers and pilots deserve better.”

Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, the airline’s union of 9,000 pilots, said the job had become a “flightmare” for pilots because of overtime.

“It’s a fight every day out there. Our fatigue rates reflect that,” he said. In the first five months of this year, Southwest pilots reported feeling tired at more than triple the rate of a year ago, according to union figures, which say this raises safety concerns.

Southwest said in a brief statement that it respects employees’ right to voice their opinions, “and we do not anticipate any disruptions in service as a result of this one-time demonstration.” The airline declined to comment on the union’s concerns.

Neither the union nor the company discussed salaries or other negotiation topics.

Dallas-based Southwest has been hiring pilots since last year to replace those who accepted purchases the airline offered in 2020, when the pandemic caused air travel to plummet. The union says pilots are not being paid fairly for handling extra flights and that Southwest uses outdated crew scheduling technology that makes it difficult for the airline to recover from even minor setbacks.

Southwest, the nation’s fourth-largest airline, suffered from high cancellation rates last summer and again in early October as Florida’s weather-related cancellations escalated into a full-day national meltdown. He’s performed better more recently, including over Memorial Day weekend.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to know whether picketing at airports helps unions at the negotiating table.

Pilots enjoy special respect from travelers, and when they picket them in full uniform, they “create a powerful image” that travelers remember, said Henry Harteveldt, travel analyst at Atmosphere Research Group.

Harteveldt said pilots currently have leverage in negotiations due to pilot shortages and widespread flight delays and cancellations.

“But timing is everything in these negotiations,” he said. “If the economy takes a significant downturn and airlines see business drop and reduce their flights, then the leverage that pilots have today may be gone.”

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