The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) has sued Southwest Airlines, asserting that the Dallas-based carrier has violated federal labor law through its “emergency” policies attributed to the pandemic.
Why Are Pilots Suing Southwest Airlines?
The complaint, lodged by the union on behalf of pilots, was filed in federal court on Monday in Dallas. It describes grievances in several areas, including:
- Southwest’s “emergency time off” program
- Schedule changes
- Reduced prescription drug and retirement benefits
- Hotel and transportation benefits
- Quarantine rules for impacted pilots
Let’s briefly unpack each area. First, pilots claim that Southwest’s “emergency time off” program is invalid because it was “imposed” on employees rather than arrived at through collective bargaining. Put simply, pilots were offered voluntary unpaid leave. No one was forced to take it, though many did. The union claims that Southwest was not even permitted to offer this without first negotiation the package.
Second, not only has Southwest Airlines constantly tinkered with flight schedules, but this tinkering has caused an unprecedented degree of uncertainty. With flight schedules frequently changing and Southwest suffering operationally this summer, pilots often find themselves reassigned at the last minute, which creates stress and may lengthen time away from loved ones or impact other important duties. After pilots threatened to picket over the holidays, Southwest recently trimmed its schedule voluntarily.
Third, pilots claim emergency unpaid leave policies result in reduced retirement and prescription drug benefits.
Fourth, hotel and transportation benefits have been trimmed due to COVID-19 (in some cases due to hotel policy and at not the direct fault of Southwest), which creates friction, particularly after a long duty day.
Finally, pilots who are exposed to COVID-19 are forced into a mandatory quarantine, even if they do not contract the virus. During that time, they are not paid. The union calls this withholding pay.
SWAPA claims all of these changes require Southwest to follow the collective bargaining process. Southwest invoked force majeure, arguing the sudden and drastic drop in air travel in March 2020 constituted an uncontrollable emergency that threatened the survivability of the airline and therefore could not wait for negotiation. However, pilots state that the current agreement does not contain an explicit force majeure clause.
All this comes under the backdrop of contract negations for a new collective bargaining agreement. The current agreement has expired, but remains in force until a new agreement is implemented.
In its lawsuit, SWAPA called the conduct by Southwest “illegal” and claimed it resorted to “asymmetrical warfare in negotiations.”
“More specifically, defendant Southwest Airlines has issued and implemented an Infectious Disease Control Policy during the COVID-19 pandemic that significantly altered the working conditions, rules, and rates for pay for pilots.”
Meanwhile, Southwest Airlines says its actions were justified. Russel McCrady, Vice President of Labor Relations, said Southwest “has been forced to respond to the unpredictable challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“The airline disagrees with SWAPA’s claims that any COVID-related changes over the past few months required negotiation. As always, Southwest remains committed to pilots’ health and welfare and to working with SWAPA, and our other union partners, as we continue navigating the challenges presented by the ongoing pandemic.”
Southwest did not report a profit for the first time in 48 years. As travel uncertainty remains, Southwest and SWAPA could not be further apart, with Southwest calling for pay cuts while the union wants pay raises. This could get very ugly…
image: Southwest Airlines