In mid-May, Southwest Airlines pilots voted to authorize a strike, making this the fourth pilots union in the United States to do so in recent months. That’s only the first step to actually going on strike, though. The union has now taken the second step, which is more than we’ve seen at any US airline so far. Could Southwest pilots actually go on strike in the coming weeks?!
First let’s cover how pilots voted to authorize a strike, and then we’ll talk about the latest update, which is quite significant.
In this post:
Southwest pilots voted in favor of a strike
In early May, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), which represents Southwest Airlines’ 10,000+ pilots, opened voting for a strike authorization. With this, pilots could vote on whether or not they’d like to see a strike among pilots at the airline.
While the vote was supposed to run through the end of May, voting closed within a week, given the overwhelming participation. 98% of pilots cast votes, and 99% of those pilots voted in favor of authorizing a strike. This followed three years of “stagnant negotiations” for a new contract for pilots (in fairness, the first 18 months of that probably wasn’t a great time to negotiate).
Here’s how SWAPA President Casey Murray described this vote:
“This is a historic day, not only for our pilots, but for Southwest Airlines. The lack of leadership and the unwillingness to address the failures of our organization have led us to this point. Our pilots are tired of apologizing to our passengers on behalf of a company that refuses to place its priorities on its internal and external customers.”
“Today, our Pilots have empowered our Negotiating Committee Chair, Captain Jody Reven, to petition the National Mediation Board to release us to self-help imminently at which time we will follow the process set forth by the Railway Labor Act and continue toward a strike. We want our passengers to understand that we do not take this path lightly and are disheartened that the LUV airline has gotten so far away from the values set forth by Herb Kelleher. We want our customers to be prepared for the path ahead and make arrangements on other carriers so that their plans through the summer and fall are not disrupted.”
As I explained at the time, just because pilots voted in favor of a strike authorization doesn’t mean they’ll actually go on strike.
Rather, Southwest management and the union representing pilots have to follow the procedures of the Railway Labor Act, which includes going to the National Mediation Board, in hopes of coming to a resolution. A strike would only (eventually) be permitted if that process fails. Even then it wouldn’t be immediate, as there would first be a 30-day cooling off period before a strike could occur.
I also can’t help but note how the union is going on quite the tirade against the company on Twitter and other social media platforms. SWAPA even has some thoughts on Southwest’s new brand film… hah.
Southwest pilots request release from National Mediation Board
Today, SWAPA has filed a request with the National Mediation Board, to officially be released from mediation. Essentially that means that negotiations aren’t going anywhere, and pilots want to strike. As the union describes it, union negotiators have become increasingly frustrated with Southwest’s lack of commitment to negotiating in earnest and the pace of productivity during this negotiation cycle.
Here’s how SWAPA President Casey Murray describes this move:
“If released from mediation, our Pilot group will continue down the path afforded to us through the Railway Labor Act (RLA).It is an unfortunate situation that we find ourselves in today, however, our pilots have waited long enough for a contract. We can no longer sit by as our fellow aviators are rewarded with industry leading contracts and watch as we bleed qualified new hires to our competitors. We love our airline, and we are willing to do what it takes to get Southwest back to the airline it once was.”
The union is stating that it hopes that this will cause Southwest’s negotiators to make a stronger commitment and more meaningful preparations for negotiations. However, otherwise the union wants to prepare for a strike, which could happen after this is approved, and there’s a 30-day cooling off period.
The reality is that strikes don’t happen often at airlines in the United States, and we haven’t seen one in over a decade. But hey, there’s always a first, so we’ll see if anything happens here.
What contract are Southwest pilots looking for?
I’ve written in the past about how much airline pilots are paid. For context, you can find Southwest’s current pilot pay scale here. First officers earn anywhere from $84 to $191 per hour, while captains earn anywhere from $241 to $274 per hour. You can add three zeroes to the end of the hourly pay scale to figure out roughly how much airline pilots earn annually.
Delta pilots recently negotiated an industry-leading contract, which will set the benchmark for the industry. As of January 1, 2024, Delta Boeing 737 first officers will be paid anywhere from $113 to $240 per hour, while captains will be paid anywhere from $323 to $352 per hour.
But I imagine that Southwest pilots will want even more than that. Why? Because Delta pilots have the ability to fly larger aircraft (with higher pay scales), while Southwest only flies the 737, so the pay scale should account for the lack of larger aircraft. For example, Delta Airbus A350 first officers will be paid anywhere from $114 to $300 per hour, while captains will be paid anywhere from $402 to $438 per hour.
At some point you have to wonder how sustainable all of these pay scales are. This will disproportionately negatively impact long haul and ultra long haul flights, which require three to four pilots. Paying four pilots these kinds of amounts on a 15 hour flight could materially alter the economics of some flights. Obviously that doesn’t apply to Southwest, though.
In May, Southwest Airlines pilots overwhelmingly voted in favor of a strike authorization. 98% of pilots cast votes, and 99% of those pilots voted in favor of a strike. Unfortunately it looks like not much progress has been made since that vote, so the union is now preparing to take the next step.
The union has filed a request with the National Mediation Board (NMB) to be officially released from mediation. If that were to happen, pilots could eventually go on strike. Like I said, this hasn’t happened in a very long time in the United States, so it’s anyone’s guess if that’s what this comes down to.
Do you think we could see Southwest pilots go on strike?