Southwest Pilots Warn Fatigue, Frustration Could Fuel Further Outages

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The airline is working to reset after canceling more than 2,000 flights in recent days; Southwest officials say they’re addressing labor challenges

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The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, which represents Southwest’s 9,000 pilots, blamed the airline’s management and described it as poor planning for trouble. The union warned over the summer that pilots were being diluted by repeated reassignments that led to longer work hours and longer voyages. Without change, problems like this could resurface this weekend, union president Capt. Casey Murray said in an interview on Monday.

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“We’re going to see it with thunderstorms in Mexico next weekend or holidays or whenever,” he said.

The workforce problem, and the added burden for companies’ employees, is a common challenge across industries from restaurants to manufacturing and healthcare. Companies have said there is a risk of employee burnout and resignation for staying late and taking extra shifts.

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In interviews, some Southwest pilots have stated that the continued possibility of re-route and uncertainty about the length of their trips may have contributed to pilots’ reluctance to take on additional flights. The union said Monday evening that pilots covered most of the trips left open over the weekend due to staffing issues.

Several factors contributed to the weekend’s turmoil. Southwest has said bad weather in Florida and air-traffic control issues that slowed traffic there on Friday night were immediate triggers. This led to a large number of cancellations that threw hundreds of aircraft and crew members out of place, initiating a chain reaction that took several days to work through.

As the airline worked to reassign trips and burn through on-call staff, a lack of available crew was cited as the reason for more than 2,100 canceled flights over the weekend, the pilots union said.

“It’s hard to catch up when an airline falls behind,” Southwest chief executive Gary Kelly said in an interview on CNBC.

The airline had no immediate comment on the union’s concerns over a similar future outage. Senior Southwest officials have said they recognize the need for more staffing “cushions” to protect operations from unexpected aftershocks, and have said they are cutting more flights in November and December to avoid further problems. Will consider. Southwest officials also apologized to the crew members for the disruptions and praised their resilience.

The cancellations this month are the latest challenge for the Dallas-based airline as air travel intensified in the months since the COVID-19 vaccine became widely available in the US, with technical problems causing Southwest to cancel hundreds of flights and hundreds more. prompted to delay. Southwest and other airlines set out ambitious new programs to meet growing demand—but have diluted resources.

Mr Kelly said on Tuesday that Southwest had reduced its packed flight schedules in an effort to ease some of the problems it caused in the summer, but did not have the necessary backup staff to handle unforeseen events on Friday night.

“We were short staffed over the weekend, and that certainly didn’t help things as we were trying to recover,” he said.

In a message to members Monday evening, the pilot union attributed the increase in illness and fatigue calls to the cumulative effect of these strains. Pilots are encouraged to disclose when they feel they are too tired to fly to reduce the risk of mistakes that could lead to accidents.

The union said in a message to members Monday evening that Southwest is on track to be the second-worst month on record for pilot fatigue calls after October. There were 32 fatigue calls on Saturday and 68 on Sunday, the union said, attributing it to reassignment, inability to find hotels, and “more than four months of scheduling mismanagement”.

The union said in its message that sickening rates among Southwest pilots this month are trending ahead of October, although they are comparable to August levels and slightly higher than last month. The union said the numbers show the impact of ongoing staff shortages since June, with sick rates creeping up as pilots wear out, the union said.

The figures that do not show, the union said, are evidence that pilots are calling in protest against the airline’s plans to mandate COVID-19 vaccines to comply with new federal rules. That theory has gained traction among some politicians, commentators and social media users, but there has been a backlash to the mandate of some employees, with both the union and airline management saying there is no evidence of any coordinated action.

The company had no immediate comment on the union’s figures.

Relations between Southwest and its pilots union have become more strained in recent months. The union sued Southwest in August, alleging that the airline unilaterally changed working conditions as it responded to the pandemic last year. Last week the union updated the suit to include an objection to the implementation of Southwest’s vaccine mandate, and sought a temporary restraining order to block that and other policies.

Mr. Kelly said in a CNBC interview that the company had no problem working with its employees, and that it is encouraging everyone to get vaccinated or, if they can’t, seek accommodation for the new federal regulations. Do it.

Staffing has been a challenge for Southwest and other airlines as the coronavirus pandemic halted travel indefinitely. About 5,000 employees left the airline permanently and 11,000 went on extended leave. Southwest officials have said the airline struggled to recall and retain those employees after demand surged in recent months.

Southwest has said it is more than halfway through its goal of hiring about 5,000 employees this year, and plans to hire 8,000 more next year.

Hiring has become difficult as airlines, including Southwest, face stiff competition for certain roles, such as airport ground staff. Southwest executive Bob Jordan, who will become the airline’s CEO next year, has said it’s a new position for a company that has never had trouble attracting employees before. While Southwest used to get more than 40 applications per opening, it has recently received around 14, he said at an industry event last month.

“The odds have always been, can we get planes, can we get facilities, can we get gates?” Mr Jordan said. “I’ve never experienced a time when there’s a bottleneck, can we get employees?”

Write to Alison Cider at [email protected] and Jennifer Calfas at [email protected]

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