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Pressure Mounts on Southwest Airlines as Pilots Vote in Favor of Strike

The Southwest Airlines Pilot Association voted 99% in favor of industrial action, although a strike is still unlikely to happen

May 15, 2023

Photo: Southwest Airlines pilots. Courtesy of Southwest Airlines / Stephen M. Keller, 2020

Pilots working for Southwest Airlines have voted overwhelmingly in favor of strike action, the workers union representing them has announced.

On Thursday, May 11, the Southwest Airlines Pilot Association (SWAPA) announced that 99% of its members that took part in a recent vote had voted to authorize a strike, with 98% of its membership partaking in the vote.

However, Southwest pilots are unlikely to go ahead with the strike action, although the vote is expected to put pressure on the carrier during the ongoing contract negotiations between the union and company executives.

Photo: Courtesy of Southwest Airlines / Stephen M. Keller

Under U.S. regulations, airline pilots can’t legally go on strike unless federal mediators determine there is no point in continued negotiations, and even after this, any strike can still be blocked by the President and Congress.

Southwest Airlines said that the vote has had no immediate impact on its operations: “We are staffed and prepared to welcome travelers for their summer travel plans.”

According to SWAPA, the strike authorization vote was called because of growing unrest among its pilots due to recent “operational disasters,” such as the widespread chaos Southwest faced during the holiday season in 2022, where more than 16,700 flights were canceled in just ten days, along with more than three years of “stagnant negotiations” over worker contracts.

“This is a historic day, not only for our pilots but for Southwest Airlines,” said Casey Murray, president of SWAPA. “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.

Photo: Houston Hobby. Courtesy of Stephen M. Keller, Southwest Airlines

“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.”

The vote of Southwest pilots to authorize strike action follows a similar outcome from American Airlines pilots. The Allied Pilots Association (APA), representing 15,000 American Airlines pilots, voted 99% in favor of strike action in a recent ballot. The APA is negotiating with the carrier over improved contracts for its pilots and changes to the airline’s operating schedule and workplace conditions.