Contract negotiations may come to a head this week between Southwest Airlines and the union representing more than 10,000 pilots who fly jets for the largest carrier at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
Southwest Airlines Pilots Association members should know by Thursday if they have a new deal after 3 1/2 years of negotiations with their Dallas-based employer.
The pilots union on Tuesday opened a regional strike center in Columbia, Maryland, the first SWAPA strike center outside of Dallas. It will serve as a resource center for pilots in the event of a strike. Home to 1,188 of its pilots, BWI is the fourth-largest hub in the Southwest network.
With the approaching holidays bringing reminders of last year’s winter meltdown, a strike by pilots threatens to ground the region’s holiday flights for a second year in a row.
But how likely is a strike and when exactly would it start? Here are some things to know:
Is a strike likely?
If a deal doesn’t get done by Thursday, it will yield one of three possible outcomes, according to Mike Panebianco, communications chair for SWAPA.
Federal mediators, who were brought in last year to help with negotiations, could set a new deadline and simply tell both sides to continue talking. If they feel that the pilots union is not acting in good faith, they could put negotiations “on ice” — suspending them entirely. The third option, which is possible if mediators feel the company is not acting in good faith, is to release both sides to a 30-day “cooling-off” period. Pilots could legally begin striking after that 30-day period runs out.
“Obviously a cooling-off period would end somewhere between Christmas and New Year’s, and obviously that’s bad,” Panebianco said.
But federal officials don’t take this issue lightly. When SWAPA requested to be released from federal mediation back in July in order to strike, that request was denied, obliging them back to the bargaining table. Union officials have acknowledged it’s possible that happens again.
The last strike by a U.S. airline union took place in 2010, involving pilots at Spirit Airlines, according to the Associated Press.
What are both sides saying?
A Southwest Airlines representative stressed that talks are continuing.
“Our negotiations continue, and we’ll keep working, with the assistance of the National Mediation Board, to reach an agreement that rewards our Pilots and places them competitively in the industry,” the airline representative wrote in an email to The Baltimore Banner. “For 52 years, we’ve maintained a legendary Southwest Culture that honors our valued Employees, and we look forward to continuing that tradition.”
Mike Santoro, vice president of SWAPA, was hopeful that an agreement could be reached.
“We have made some pretty good progress, there’s a decent chance we could reach a deal or get close to it,” Santoro said.
Panebianco stressed that striking would be “absolutely the last tactic,” with the ultimate goal of inking a new deal.
In a union vote earlier this year that had near full participation, 99% of Southwest pilots voted to authorize the strike. And Santoro added that without a reasonable implementation schedule, the new deal is “fragile.”
Southwest pilots have wanted to strike for a while, but legally they haven’t been able to. Airline labor relations are regulated by the Railway Labor Act, which requires the pilots union to come to the table with federal mediators before they can strike.
The latest contract between Southwest and SWAPA expired in September 2020, and both sides have failed to reach an agreement on updated terms since.
After the union’s last request to be released from federal mediation was denied, establishing strike centers represents a next step in the process, said Tony Mulhare, a pilot and member of SWAPA’s strike preparedness committee. “This is an uncertain process for us as a union, but we have to be prepared,” he said.
Why do pilots want to strike?
Santoro said negotiations are “getting close in the big areas” that the union is focused on — pay, retirement benefits, disability insurance and a revised scheduling process.
With the Big Three carriers — Delta, American and United airlines — having already reached new deals with their respective pilots unions this year, Southwest now lags in compensation for pilots. Santoro said that nearly 300 Southwest pilots have left to work for other airlines so far this year, a massive uptick for a company long known for its all-in, employee-first culture.
“Can you blame them? I mean you go to Delta, and you make 20-30% more,” said Santoro, who attributes changes at the executive level with a deterioration of the Southwest culture at the ground level.
But the union is asking for slightly higher pay than pilots at other airlines who fly Boeing 737 jets — the only kind of plane in the Southwest fleet — the AP reported. They justify the request arguing that Southwest flies its planes and pilots longer per day on average.
Santoro said employees once would “do things to just help out the company,” reflecting a loyalty to Southwest dating back to its late founder, Herb Kelleher.
Kelleher “used to call it the warrior spirit, and there may be some of that around, but for the most part with the way things are going, it’s definitely left the pilot group,” Santoro said.
Southwest is the only major airline that depends on its pilots union to self-fund disability payments for injured workers, according to Panebianco.
The scheduling system has been a huge driver of discontent, Panebianco said, with the company logging record numbers of fatigue calls — when a pilot has to call out because they are too tired to fly. In the current system, pilots can be reassigned or given additional flights to operate with little notice. Panebianco told The Banner that SWAPA pilots have collectively lost more than 30,000 days off due to “mandatory overtime.”
“No one here wants to have to go on strike, but they are willing to go on strike” Mulhare said.
Unlike larger unions, SWAPA doesn’t have the capacity to pay its members while they are on the picket line, meaning that pilots who don’t fly don’t get paid. The pilots union has been telling its members to put money aside in case a strike happens.
Meanwhile, American Airlines flight attendants are asking federal officials for the right to go on strike, possibly before the end of the Christmas and New Year’s travel rush, but American said there was “no possibility” of a walkout over the holidays, the AP reported last week.
Is there a connection to last year’s Southwest meltdown?
Holiday travelers may still be scarred from last year, when a cascade of problems that began with severe weather forced Southwest to cancel roughly 60% of its flights over the Christmas weekend and in the days after.
The same rolling reassignment system that is driving discontent and burnout among pilots was partially to blame.
Southwest’s point-to-point travel system, which offers more nonstop flights than most airlines because it doesn’t route through company hubs as often, left many crews stranded or delayed getting to their next scheduled flight. The company started reassigning crews to different flights, and eventually lost track of where its pilots were due to the number of reassignments, Panebianco said.
The pilots union is pushing Southwest to rely less on reassignments, and instead allow pilots to voluntarily work flights in need of a crew on their day off if they are looking for some extra money. Combined with the addition of more robust scheduling technology, Southwest could create a more “resilient” scheduling system, Mulhare said.
What is a ‘strike center’?
SWAPA banners line the walls of a second-story office within a nondescript Columbia business park. Union representatives in red polo shirts are training roughly two dozen of their fellow pilots on how to conduct “check-in” calls. They pointed to scripts and flow charts taped to workstation walls, and told them to ask pilots what their needs were and to use words like compassion and empathy. The trainees include first officers with three strikes across their shoulders and captains with four stripes.
They all came in Tuesday on their day off, Mulhare said, with some driving hours to get the training. “This is the brain center,” he said.
About 20 pilots will staff the center 24/7 in the event of a strike. In addition to tracking the location of Southwest planes, strike center workers will call as needed to verify that pilots do not plan to fly that day. The calls are also an opportunity to assess their needs and connect them to resources such as mental health services.
Mulhare said that strikes are typically stressful for workers, making it critical to connect union members with services and with one another. He said the strike center can help maintain a sense of camaraderie among striking pilots, as well as organize accommodations and flights home on other airlines in the event of a strike.
Is BWI doing anything to prepare?
Much of BWI”s growth has been fueled by the presence of Southwest, which operates the largest share of flights using its runways. BWI is currently undergoing its largest capital project since initial construction to bolster the baggage handling process for the Southwest terminal.
Sunday was the airport’s busiest day since the beginning of the pandemic, with more than 36,600 departing passengers passing through TSA checkpoints, according to airport officials.
Jonathan Dean, communications director for the airport, said that his team is in regular contact with Southwest leadership but did not offer additional comment.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America, a national service organization that places emerging journalists with local newsrooms that cover underreported issues.