Southwest Airlines Ignores Another Looming Problem

The airline loves apologizing but it does not seem to be taking its next potential flight disruption all that seriously.

Southwest Airlines LUV has fallen all over itself to apologize to its customers for the entirely predictable meltdown that basically shut it down during the Christmas travel rush. The airline belatedly agreed to pay some travelers for costs they incurred when flights were cancelled and has promised to address its issues.

CEO Bob Jordan said all the right thing in a Jan. 17 statement that laid out a bunch of improvements the airline plans to make.

“Southwest has a long history of innovation and continuous improvement. We are currently budgeted to spend more than $1 billion of our annual operating plan on investments, upgrades, and maintenance of our IT systems. The recent disruption will accelerate our plans to enhance our processes and technology as we continue to focus on adding capabilities to bring rapid improvements for you, our valued customers,” he shared.

That sounds nice, but with multiple experts and the airline’s own pilots’ association called the meltdown predictable, accusing it of neglecting technology for over a decade.

“Systemwide meltdowns at Southwest Airlines have been increasing in frequency and magnitude over the past 15 years.” the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) shared in a letter.

Now, in addition to its technology problems, Southwest’s management seems tone deaf to how its pilots feel and that could very well lead to another major disruption.

Patrick T. Fallon / AFP

Southwest Airlines Pilots Might Strike

SWAPA President Captain Casey Murray issued a call for a Strike Authorization Vote from the Association’s membership on Jan 18. The vote won’t take place until May 1, which gives the airline and the pilots time to work out their issue, but SWAPA called the move a “historic action on the part of the pilot union comes in the wake of Southwest’s largest meltdown and the 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.”

Murray made it clear in his statement that the pilots are sending a message not just to the airline’s management, but to its customers.

“While your Board of Directors and Executive Officers have had many strategic discussions on timing, I think it is best to consider what our customers have been through over the past several years and the past several weeks. It was the lack of discussion or commitment by our leadership team to rectify these issues for our passengers and our pilots that drove us to make the decision to carry forward on this path afforded to us by the Railway Labor Act,” he said.

Murray noted that May 1 was a date picked to give customers the option of making travel plans on different airlines.

“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,” he added.

Southwest Airlines Management Responds

Southwest issued a fairly benign statement in response that’s meant to assuage passenger fears (and keep them booking those summer vacations).

“SWAPA’s call for an authorization vote does not affect Southwest’s operation or our ability to take care of our Customers,” said Southwest Labor Relations Vice President Adam Carlisle.. “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. The union’s potential vote does not hinder our ongoing efforts at the negotiating table. We are scheduled to resume mediation on January 24.”

The airline and its pilots have been negotiating since October and are currently working with mediators from the National Mediation Board.

“The proposed vote does not affect operations in any way and is not an indication of an impending work stoppage. As always, the Southwest Team is focused on delivering a safe and reliable operation, along with our legendary Southwest Hospitality, to customers,” the airline shared.

Unfortunately, Southwest has lost the trust of its pilots and its customers. It sounds nice to say that the vote “is not an indication of an impending work stoppage” when it is in fact the first step towards one. SWAPA has been sending major warning signals and telling customers to book another airline is a fairly nuclear step that does not suggest that a resolution will appear quickly.

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