In a summer rife with air travel troubles, Southwest Airlines has at times struggled more than its competitors, vexing both travelers and employees.
The airline, which for years has staked its sterling reputation on being a reliable airline and great place to work, pledged in late July that fixes were on the way, but it appears the problems are far from over and will drag into the fall.
Southwest Chief Operating Officer Mike Van de Ven told employees in a memo Friday that the airline continues to face operational challenges and is looking into reducing fall flights. The latter would mean more flight changes or cancellations for travelers who already purchased tickets, a problem that has persisted throughout the pandemic.
“There is no question that we are not out of the woods yet,” Van de Van said. “Normally, we would start to feel some relief this week as we exit from our peak summer schedule, but that has not happened – our operation continues to have unique challenges compared to whatever a ‘normal’ year is, making it difficult to predict or plan for our operation.”
Van de Ven ticked off a long line of continuing pandemic-related issues, including hiring challenges, delays in connecting travelers and their bags, food and hotels for flight crews and the recently extended federal mask mandate, which means tensions are still high among passengers.
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Van de Ven said Southwest is evaluating its flight schedules for the October-December quarter, which includes the busy holiday travel season but did not offer specifics.
“We’re taking a serious look at flight levels to ensure that our flying aligns with the staffing needed to operate within this more complicated COVID environment.”
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Southwest flight attendants, pilots fuming
Van de Ven’s update to employees, which included an apology, comes against a backdrop of growing acrimony among Southwest pilots and flight attendants.
They say they are fed up with what they see as Southwest’s haphazard planning for and handling of the post-vaccination travel surge. The airline canceled a higher percentage (3.3%) of flights than any U.S. carrier in June, according to figures on domestic flights released by the U.S. Department of Transportation Friday and had the second lowest on-time arrival rate after budget carrier Allegiant.
Significant flight cancellations and delays continued in July and so far in August, according to aviation data firm Cirium, though United and American also struggled, in some cases faring worse.
In July, Southwest canceled 1.6% of all flights, including international flights, about equal to American and fewer than United (2.3%) but far more than Delta. So far in August, Southwest has canceled 3.3% of its flights, fewer than American but higher than United and Delta, according to Cirium.
Flight crews say their work schedules have been thrown into disarray, with trips repeatedly extended at the last minute to cover shortfalls, and a scramble to find hotels and food on the road, shortening typical rest periods between flights. They also have issues with the airline’s COVID protocols for flight crews who are notified of exposure to the virus.
The large employee groups, which are each in union contract negotiations with the airline, have been pressing Southwest for changes but say they have seen limited relief. So they are taking the pressure up a notch and to the public. The flight attendants have begun virtual picketing with the slogan, “No way, SWA,” promoting it via a Change.org petition, and the pilots are planning airport picketing during the busy holiday travel season at the end of the year.
The airline’s flight attendants union, Transport Workers Union Local 556, this week sent a letter to Southwest CEO Gary Kelly demanding fixes. Employees say they put the airline and its customers first during the pandemic, sometimes above their own families, and have “rolled with the changes” and “untenable work conditions” the pandemic brought.
“But today, we write to tell you that we have given all we have left to give,” the letter says. “Flight attendants are weary, exhausted, frustrated and forgotten. Some of us – far too many of us – are sick. Many of us are making choices that can have grave impact to our jobs, our customers and our company. And all of us are trying to keep the jobs we love, keep our customers happy and keep our carrier in the air.”
The union alleges that Southwest took a swipe at its new slogan in an online fare sale ad this week, with a pitch for $49 tickets accompanied by the line, “Yes way.”
In a memo to employees, Southwest called the timing “coincidental and unfortunate.” The airline said it has used the same line in previous ads, posting one from a June Facebook post.
After the union’s concerns were raised, the airline said it changed the wording within two hours.
“Despite the challenges we face, Southwest Airlines values and respects all employees and will never seek to make light of issues that are important to you,” the memo to flight attendants said.
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Southwest’s pilots, represented by the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, have similar issues with the airline and have also fired off letters to Southwest executives this month to complain about working conditions.
“Our pilots on the line are not getting the support they need,” Casey Murray, president of the union, said in an interview.
He said there is such “scheduling chaos” going on that pilots end up in cities they are not supposed to be in, working later than was planned, and are having to search for their own hotels instead of having a reservation already booked when they land.
In a video distributed to pilots this week, Murray said the union’s efforts to resolve some of the issues with Southwest have been met with “reluctance and a lack of understanding and sometimes straight-up hostility.”
“We cannot sit idly by and wait for things to fall further apart,” he said.
In the memo to employees Friday, Van de Ven conceded that the the airline has not done enough to improve the situation for employees. In addition to potential flight cuts and hiring, he said they are working on other fixes, including new food options as early as next week.
“We know the curveballs of this summer brought more work and stress than you’ve ever experienced in your careers, and we hear you when you say it’s not letting up,” he said. “We know this battle is far from over, and we do not want to lose the tremendous ground that you have gained for us. More than anything, I want you to know that we are all in this together.”