Southwest pilots sue over company changes made during pandemic

Southwest pilots sue over company changes made during pandemic
© Greg Nash

A union representing thousands of Southwest Airlines pilots has sued the company over alleged changes to employment rules, pay rates and other working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic. 

In the complaint, which was filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) said that during the pandemic, the airline implemented several changes without first reaching a new collective bargaining agreement with the union after the previous deal expired in August 2020. 

The union alleged that the Dallas-based airline has continued a "pattern of taking without bargaining," including by implementing an "emergency time off" program, altering work schedules, and reducing prescription drug and retirement benefits. 

ADVERTISEMENT

SWAPA said in a statement that it "did not take this step lightly" but saw the lawsuit as a last resort "given the ongoing problems with COVID pulls and management's numerous unilateral decisions that disregarded the Company's obligation to maintain status quo" during bargaining agreement negotiations. 

“We are still hopeful that management will meet and engage in meaningful discussions enabling us to bargain and codify agreements and put an end to this lawsuit,” the union continued. “However, until that happens, we must continue to hold them accountable for their actions and take the steps necessary to protect our Pilots and their families.” 

Russell McCrady, Southwest’s vice president of labor relations, said in a statement shared with The Hill that “the airline disagrees with SWAPA’s claims that any COVID-related changes over the past few months required negotiation,” noting that the company faced “unpredictable challenges presented by the global COVID-19 pandemic.” 

“As always, Southwest remains committed to Pilots’ health and welfare and to working with SWAPA, and our other union partners, to continue navigating challenges in an ongoing pandemic,” McCrady added. 

“The Safety of our Employees and Customers remains paramount at all times, and Southwest has a demonstrated five-decade legacy of putting Employees first in our decisions – including maintaining our 50-year history of no furloughs or layoffs throughout the pandemic,” McCrady said.

Southwest, along with other airlines, gave paid incentives for employees to quit their jobs last year amid a sharp decline in air travel during the pandemic. However, airlines are now struggling to develop a large enough workforce to meet demand as more customers return to the skies. 

Pilots and flight attendants unions have blamed airline management for delays and canceled flights, with SWAPA saying it is considering picketing at airports later this year to express its displeasure with the ongoing situation.