Members of the Southwest Airlines Pilot Association introduced the first steps to begin a strike one month after the company canceled thousands of flights during the holiday travel season.
Southwest nixed an elevated number of flights even after severe winter weather conditions had subsided in the days after Christmas. The company’s labor union announced that a strike authorization vote will occur on May 1 in response to the holiday meltdown and the “utter lack of meaningful progress on a contract negotiation,” especially with respect to scheduling work rules and information technology requests.
“I think it is best to consider what our customers have been through over the past several years and the past several weeks,” Southwest Airlines Pilot Association President Captain Casey Murray said in a press release. “It was the lack of discussion or commitment by our leadership team to rectify these issues for our passengers and our pilots that drove us to make the decision to carry forward on this path afforded to us by the Railway Labor Act.”
The law, passed in 1926 as the nation became increasingly reliant upon railways, allows Congress to exercise its authority over interstate commerce by preventing strikes in the transportation sector. Officials recently used the statute to halt a rail strike.
Shares for Southwest dropped 3.5% on Wednesday after the announcement; the company’s stock price has fallen nearly 9% since the beginning of December.
“We believe that May 1 provides a date that allows our union time to prepare and gives our customers time to book elsewhere, so that they can have confidence that their summer vacations, honeymoons, and family outings are assured,” Murray added. “It is not a decision we have taken lightly, but given the trajectory of our current leadership group, we have little faith in the stability and future of our airline.”
Negotiations between the labor union and Southwest Airlines are scheduled to resume on January 24, according to a press release from the company, which said that the scheduled authorization vote is not expected to impact operations.
Southwest canceled some 16,700 flights between December 21 and December 31, according to a filing submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission earlier this month. The company estimated that the number of available seat miles, a metric used in the airline industry to approximate capacity for revenue generation, was 6% lower in the fourth quarter in comparison to the same period in 2019, marking a 4% decrease from previous forecasts. Total losses from the fallout are expected to cost the company between $725 million and $825 million, a sum largely driven by anticipated revenue losses between $400 million and $425 million.
Policymakers such as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg have exhorted Southwest to quickly reimburse customers; he described the “level of disruption” experienced by passengers as “unacceptable” in a recent letter to Southwest CEO Bob Jordan and warned that his agency would exercise “the fullest extent of its investigative and enforcement powers” to ensure customers are refunded. Buttigieg received criticism from lawmakers within the Democratic Party for failing to implement new airline industry rules they had previously recommended.