These cancellations weren’t in protest over vaccines, and we didn’t leave our customers stranded. Pilots have been sounding the alarm for months.
Recently, a national news narrative arose falsely implying that Southwest Airlines pilots walked out on their passengers, forcing them to cancel important family plans and leaving them stranded all over the country. And the untrue rumors indicated that they did this over a protest from the airline’s vaccine mandate policy.
As a Southwest Airlines pilot myself, I can tell you the truth. And the truth is, Southwest Airlines pilots did not cause our airline’s operational problems last weekend, and the data definitively shows this.
To have a walkout, you must have a significant increase in pilots failing to show up to work. But the reality is, that data doesn’t exist. There has not been a dramatic spike in pilot sick call rates anywhere in the month of October. What actually happened was Southwest Airlines pilots and flight attendants were stranded away from their homes and families, right alongside our passengers. Much like our passengers, many of our crews were unable to find hotel rooms. That only exacerbated Southwest’s problems as numerous pilots were not legally permitted to fly due to a lack of rest before getting behind the controls of an airliner.
What the data does show is:
► Record rates of Southwest pilots working overtime to help complete the schedule in October.
► A network disruption on Friday, Oct. 8, followed by a dense flight schedule Saturday, Oct. 9, with an increase of pilot flying time by 8.2% from the previous weekend left no margin for recovery.
► The most Southwest flights scheduled on Sunday, Oct. 10, since March 2020, while having approximately 850 less pilots available due to pandemic staffing reductions and retirements.
Pilots are frustrated and overworked
Because of frequent reassignments and extended trips, pilots are being forced to work on their days off, even many who are already voluntarily working overtime to help. Southwest Airlines management has consistently failed to invest in IT improvements that enhance stability and efficiency into the schedule. This eventually contributed to many out of position pilots sitting unused in hotels while Southwest searched for more pilot volunteers to cover hundreds of flights that no longer had flight crews.
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While it may seem like last weekend’s troubles are a new problem, the actual cause has existed for months.
Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), has highlighted internally operation problems for years and has been on record publicly since at least July 2021 saying that Southwest Airlines flight schedule was lacking in “margin,” and has considered holding informational pickets to educate the public on our concern.
SWAPA’s data shows that our airline has enough pilots, but we are being improperly and inefficiently utilized. To an outside observer, there may be an appearance of Southwest Airlines being understaffed, but that isn’t true. With a return to productivity-focused scheduling policies that were the secret to our success in the past and an investment in IT infrastructure, our pilots can be the crucial piece needed to right our operation and provide a better customer service.
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SWAPA has asked Southwest Airlines for the schedule to be restored to its previous proven integrity, efficiency investments in improving scheduling software and practices, and accountability from our management for the failures that have occurred.
Over five decades, our pilots have always demonstrated great care for our customers and a genuine desire to serve them well. Those who either personally know a Southwest Airlines pilot or have seen them in action know that they did not abandon their passengers last weekend. And like most hard-working Americans, Southwest Airlines pilots reliably show up at work, consistently go above and beyond, produce a meaningful service and care about their customers.
Captain Michael Santoro is the vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association.