Pilots sit in while airline unions take advantage of summer travel problems

Pilots sit in while airline unions take advantage of summer travel problems

DALLAS (AFP) – Hundreds of uniformed Southwest Airlines pilots lined up in perfect queues in the scorching Texas sun at Dallas Love Field on Tuesday, carrying signs that blamed Southwest management for delays and cancellations that annoyed passengers.

Every now and then, the motorist would express encouragement or yell. Most of the passengers took a direct line to the security checkpoint inside the building.

The protest, which the union said drew up to 1,300 pilots, was the latest example of airline workers trying to pressure companies by passing their demands for higher wages directly to passengers.

Federal law makes it nearly impossible for airline unions to conduct legal strikes. Contract negotiations tend to stretch – often for years. Southwest flight attendants have been operating under an old contract since 2018.

This slow pace makes unions look for innovative ways to put pressure on management. Sometimes they vote to authorize a strike – Alaska Airlines pilots did. Last month – although there was little chance of quitting.

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

Earlier this month, American Airlines pilots chose near the New York Stock Exchange and, before that, at major airports. Some carried signs like, “Are you frustrated with AA? We are.”

Airlines unions are hoping to take advantage of strong travel demand this summer to earn wage and benefits increases.

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

Two US regional carriers will give pilots a 50% pay raise through August 2024 in addition to a long-term raise. The so-called regional airlines, which operate American Eagle, Delta Connection and United Express flights, are the hardest hit by the pilot shortage.

On Tuesday in Love Field, next to Southwest headquarters, pilots in crisp white short-sleeved shirts with epaulets draped over their shoulders, holding placards that read “Operation Southwest: From First to Worst” and “Our passengers and pilots deserve the best.”

Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, a union of 9,000 pilots, said the business has turned into a “flight flight” for pilots due to an overscheduled schedule.

“It’s a struggle every day out there. Our fatigue rates reflect that, he said. In the first five months of this year, southern pilots reported feeling fatigue at more than three times the rate last year, according to union figures, which say this raises safety concerns.

Southwest said in a brief statement that it respects employees’ right to express their views, and “we do not expect any disruption to service as a result of this single offer.” The airline declined to comment on the union’s concerns.

Neither the union nor the company will discuss wages or other bargaining topics.

Southwest, based in Dallas, has been hiring pilots since last year to replace those that took over the airline’s acquisitions in 2020, when the pandemic slashed air travel. The union says pilots are not getting fair compensation for handling extra flights, and that Southwest uses outdated crew scheduling technology that makes it difficult for the airline to recover from even minor hiccups.

Southwest, the nation’s fourth-largest airline, suffered high cancellation rates last summer and again in early October, when Florida weather-related cancellations turned into a days-long nationwide meltdown. It’s been doing better lately, including over Memorial Day weekend.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to know whether strikes at airports are helping unions at the negotiating table.

Pilots are held in special respect by travelers, and when they dress in their full military uniform, “they create a powerful image that travelers will remember,” said Henry Hartfeldt, travel analyst at the Atmosphere research group.

Hartfeldt said pilots currently wield leverage in the negotiations due to pilot shortages and widespread flight delays and cancellations.

“But timing is everything in these negotiations,” he said. “If the economy is experiencing a major slowdown and airlines see business slump and cut back on their flights, the leverage that pilots enjoy today may be gone.”

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