DALLAS — Hundreds of uniformed Southwest Airlines pilots stood in perfect lines under the scorching Texas sun at Dallas Love Field on Tuesday, holding signs blaming Southwest management for delays and cancellations that have upset passengers.
From time to time, a motorist honked or shouted encouragement. Most passengers proceeded to the security checkpoint inside the terminal.
The protest, which the union said brought together 1,300 pilots, was the latest example of airline workers trying to pressure companies by channeling their demands for higher wages directly to the flying public.
Federal law makes it nearly impossible for airline unions to conduct legal strikes. Contract negotiations tend to drag on, often for years. Southwest flight attendants have been working under a former contract since 2018.
This slowness pushes unions to look for creative ways to put pressure on management. Sometimes they vote to authorize a strike – Alaska Airlines pilots did this last month – even if they are unlikely to walk off the job.
Last week, the Air Line Pilots Association, or ALPA, released an open letter to Delta Air Lines customers, saying its members sympathize with travelers whose flights have been delayed or canceled, and blaming Delta management. The union said Delta had scheduled more flights than it had pilots to fly, and pilots were working record overtime.
Earlier this month, American Airlines pilots picketed near the New York Stock Exchange, and before that, at major airports. Some carried signs such as “Frustrated with AA? U.S. too “.
Airline unions are hoping to take advantage of strong travel demand this summer to secure wage and benefit increases.
United Airlines reached an agreement with ALPA last month. Terms were not disclosed, but they were likely to include a higher salary – United’s CEO called it a cutting-edge proposition. The agreement still needs to be ratified by the pilots.
Two regional American affiliates will give pilots a 50% pay bonus through August 2024 in addition to a longer-term raise. So-called regional carriers, which operate American Eagle, Delta Connection and United Express flights, are the hardest hit by the pilot shortage.
On Tuesday at Love Field, which sits next to Southwest’s headquarters, pilots dressed in crisp white short-sleeved shirts with epaulettes over their shoulders stood to 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 union for the airline’s 9,000 pilots, said the job had turned into a “flightmare” for pilots due to excessive hours.
“It’s a daily struggle there. Our fatigue rates reflect that,” he said. In the first five months of this year, South West pilots reported feeling fatigued at more than triple the rate of a year ago, according to union figures, which say it raises safety concerns .
Southwest said in a brief statement that it respects employees’ right to express their opinions, “and we do not anticipate any disruption in service as a result of this protest alone.” The airline declined to comment on the union’s concerns.
Neither the union nor the company would discuss wages or other bargaining issues.
Dallas-based Southwest has been hiring pilots since last year to replace those who took buyouts the airline offered in 2020, when the pandemic sent air travel plummeting. The union says pilots aren’t being fairly compensated for handling extra flights and that Southwest uses outdated crew-scheduling technology that makes it difficult for the airline to recover from even a minor hiccup.
Southwest, the nation’s fourth-largest airline, suffered high cancellation rates last summer and again in early October, when weather-related cancellations in Florida turned into a one-day national meltdown. It has 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 bargaining table.
Pilots enjoy special respect from travelers, and when they picket 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 a shortage of pilots and widespread flight delays and cancellations.
“But timing is everything in these negotiations,” he said. “If the economy experiences a significant downturn and airlines see their business plummet and reduce flights, then the leverage that pilots have today may be gone.”