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Overworked Southwest Airlines pilots prepare to picket over staffing crisis

Southwest Airlines pilots and crew are threatening to form picket lines at airports  over dire working conditions, after staffing shortages spurred heavy cancellations and caused chaos for both passengers and workers.

‘We are asking for you to stand with us and show the company that we are resolute in our insistence that they begin to address their immediate operational issues,’ Southwest Airlines Pilots Association president Casey Murray said in a video address to members on Thursday.

Flight crews say that Southwest continues to jam the schedule with flights despite severe staffing shortages, causing workers to hit their maximum duty hours and frequently leaving them stranded in destination cities without hotel rooms or adequate food.

Staffing shortages across the airline industry have led to weeks of air travel chaos, with Spirit Airlines and American Airlines imposing hundreds of cancellations earlier this month.

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Southwest pilot’s union president Casey Murray (center) warned that crews will begin picketing airports during the Thanksgiving travel season if changes aren’t made

Flight crews say that Southwest continues to jam the schedule with flights despite severe staffing shortages, causing workers to hit their maximum duty hours and frequently leaving them stranded in destination cities without hotel rooms

Flight crews say that Southwest continues to jam the schedule with flights despite severe staffing shortages, causing workers to hit their maximum duty hours and frequently leaving them stranded in destination cities without hotel rooms

The airlines say that the surge in travel this summer caught them short-handed following furloughs and layoffs during the pandemic — though the industry took billions in taxpayer bailouts to pay staff. 

As of noon on Friday, 243 Southwest flights were cancelled and 500 were delayed, the most of any US carrier. United had 24 cancellations and American had just 13.

In a statement to DailyMail.com, Southwest Vice President of Flight Operations Bob Waltz insisted: ‘Southwest Airlines has always strived to put our people first.’

‘This summer, the airline and travel industry have seen a multitude of operational challenges as we navigate the effects of the pandemic. We have teams across the airline working diligently to adapt to the current environment and support our employees during this peak travel season, including efforts focused on providing support to our pilots,’ he added. 

The union that represents Southwest flight attendants, TWU 556, also spoke out in an open letter to CEO Gary Kelly this week, slamming ‘abusive’ scheduling of 18-hour shifts and alleging untenable working conditions.

‘We have been asked to work through a myriad of unacceptable circumstances: lack of food, accommodation and transportation challenges, inconsistency in policies, and knowing that when we report for duty we are subject to being extended well into our days off,’ the letter said.

The airlines say that the surge in travel this summer caught them short-handed following furloughs and layoffs during the pandemic

The airlines say that the surge in travel this summer caught them short-handed following furloughs and layoffs during the pandemic

Flight attendants have also had to deal with a surge in violent and unruly passengers

Flight attendants have also had to deal with a surge in violent and unruly passengers

Flight attendants have also had to deal with a surge in violent and unruly passengers, such as these incidents on a Delta flight (left) and Southwest flight (right)

The union slammed the airline for ‘severe understaffing’ and wrote: ‘We refuse to continue to be treated like our safety and our ability to perform our duties is an afterthought.’  

Flight attendants have also had to deal with a surge in violent passengers, with cases of unhinged and abusive people on planes occurring frequently.

Abusive airline passengers have now racked up more than $1 million in potential fines this year with federal officials announcing fines against 34 additional individuals. 

The two unions say that unless conditions improve quickly, they will launch informational picket lines at airports during the busy Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons to share their grievances with travelers. 

‘Management’s refusal to even attempt any of our solutions, or have any real discussion has led us to this point, we must accept that our efforts to improve efficiency and make Southwest Airlines more competitive have fallen on deaf ears, time and time again, because the company has made it clear that they are comfortable with the operation as managed,’ Murray said in the video.

In a statement to DailyMail.com, Southwest Vice President of Flight Operations Bob Waltz insisted: 'Southwest Airlines has always strived to put our people first'

In a statement to DailyMail.com, Southwest Vice President of Flight Operations Bob Waltz insisted: ‘Southwest Airlines has always strived to put our people first’

Last month, Southwest began offering flight attendants double time to pick up extra shifts, and the company is trying to fill vacancies using employees referral bonuses. 

Sonya Lacore, a vice president of inflight operations at Southwest, told DailyMail.com in a statement: ‘The safety of our Employees and Customers comes first, at all times, and that continues to be the priority in everything that we do.’ 

‘We are aware of the concerns the TWU 556 raised in their letter, and there is much work already underway to address many of the issues this summer,’ she added.

‘We value the many contributions that Flight Attendants make to Southwest every day, especially as we operate during the ongoing pandemic and our peak summer season,’ said Lacore.

Southwest made a $463 million profit in the first six months of this year thanks to nearly $2 billion in federal relief to help cover payroll costs. 

That’s on top of $3.4 billion in taxpayer help last year, part of the $54 billion in relief that U.S. airlines have received since March 2020. The aid is scheduled to end Sept. 30, but it has been extended twice before. 

In June, Southwest Airlines service was suspended for the second time in less than 24 hours due to 'technology issues' that led to cancellations and delays of nearly 50% of its flights

In June, Southwest Airlines service was suspended for the second time in less than 24 hours due to ‘technology issues’ that led to cancellations and delays of nearly 50% of its flights

Despite the surge in Delta variant infections, the U.S. continues to set new marks for air travel during the pandemic, with a record 2.2 million people going through airport checkpoints on August 1, according to the Transportation Security Administration. 

On Friday, 1.9 million people passed through the checkpoints, more than double the number a year ago, but still well under the 2.5 million on the same day in 2019.

Airlines have scrambled to capitalize on the demand for air travel, packing more flights onto their schedules even when suffering apparent staffing issues.

However, there are signs that the rise of the Delta variant, which was first identified in India and bears no relation to Delta Air Lines, are beginning to affect travel demand. 

Southwest said this month in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that last-minute bookings have dropped while cancellations have increased in recent weeks, and it tied both trends to the rise in COVID-19 cases.

The airline expects to see airplane cabins go from 87 percent full in July, when they were packed with summer vacationers, to between 75 percent and 80 percent in September. 


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