Southwest Airlines Is Being Sued By Its Pilots

On Monday, August 30th, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) filed a lawsuit against Southwest Airlines. The union alleges that the Dallas-based airline has violated its agreement with pilots by breaching the status quo over pandemic-era policies that the airline implemented. This is the latest escalation in a feud between the airline and its pilots.

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Southwest Airlines has been sued by its pilots. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Southwest pilots file a lawsuit

Southwest’s pilots have issues with the airline’s policies put in place due to the pandemic. The union alleges that the policies significantly altered the working conditions, rules, and rates for pay for pilots.

The lawsuit comes after over a year of the pilots and the airline negotiating a contract. One of the biggest pain points for the union in the lawsuit was the airline’s response to COVID-19. The airline issued an Infectious Disease Control Policy that, the union alleges, altered working conditions for pilots in a unilateral manner and goes against status quo and good faith bargaining.

Southwest Airlines
Southwest and its pilots started negotiations on a new contract in January 2020, but the pandemic led to new concerns popping up. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

SWAPA wants an injunction enjoining Southwest Airlines from unilaterally making COVID-related work environment changes. It is also looking for the court’s support in asking Southwest Airlines to cease and desist and pushing to bring Southwest back to the table to negotiate with its pilots.

The dispute between pilots and Southwest

With the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, the carrier had to make some major changes to its schedules and, to survive, sought concessions from various labor groups, including some pay cuts, which pilots were not a fan of. One of its actions was implementing an Emergency Time Off (ETO) program and, later, an Emergency Extended Time Off (ExTO) program that, according to the union, offered pilots the option to not fly and not be paid. The union objected to these conditions in March, and the two parties started negotiating again.

One of the carrier’s concerns was employees getting sick while at work. At the time, following public health guidelines, Southwest included situations where employees who contract the virus or may have been exposed to an infectious person would need to quarantine and not report to work. However, it reassured pilots it intended to pay them during the quarantine.

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One of the issues the airline’s pilots have put forth is the carrier’s changing pay plans for its pilots who are quarantined. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

However, the union alleges that, by December 2020, Southwest Airlines had begun directing pilots to quarantine. Only those pilots who had close contact with an infected person were paid for the work they missed, as the union alleges. The pilots further allege that, by June 16th, 2021, Southwest stopped paying pilots who were directed into mandatory quarantines.

This came after Southwest Airlines revised its Infectious Disease Control Policy on May 11th. This revision saw the removal of guaranteed employee pay protection for COVID-related events and instead stated employees “may” be paid at Southwest’s discretion, according to the union’s court filing.

This came after several months of talks pre-pandemic that appeared to end at an impasse.

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The lawsuit is the latest escalation in the dispute between the pilots and the airline. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

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Southwest’s woes over pilots

Southwest’s pilots are upset, and this is the latest escalation in several months of tensions between the airline and its pilots. In recent weeks, the union has expressed concerns over Southwest enacting a vaccination mandate for its employees. Southwest has thus far not enacted one but has released some incentives to get its employees vaccinated.

Needless to say, a lawsuit is not where either party necessarily wanted this dispute to go. Court battles can leave a bitter taste in employee negotiations, but it appears SWAPA believes it has no other moves left.

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The lawsuit comes as Southwest is preparing for a transition at the top in less than six months. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

This comes after Southwest pilots have put forth a threat of picketing over the holiday periods this winter. It is not the only group of employees upset at Southwest, as even flight attendants have expressed their concerns with the company’s strategy, though they have received some relief and have not filed a lawsuit.

This comes just as CEO Gary Kelly is expecting to retire in less than six months. The next CEO, Robert Jordan, may come to the job while still facing issues with pilots. That could be a fresh start for the union and the airline, but only time will tell what comes of this relationship.

What do you think of SWAPA’s lawsuit? Let us know in the comments!