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Southwest Airlines Faces Reckoning Over Staffing And Operations

The recovery has been far from smooth for most major airlines. Southwest Airlines has also faced some crunches. The most recent are concerns coming from pilots and flight attendants. Now, the carrier has granted some reprieve for its flight attendants, but it is facing a reckoning over schedules through the remainder of the year.

Southwest Boeing 737 MAX
Southwest Airlines has axed plans to add more flight attendant assignments in September as it faces a reckoning over its schedules and staffing levels. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Southwest Airlines grants flight attendants some reprieve

On Friday evening, TWU Local 556, the union representing Southwest’s flight attendants, announced that the airline has decided not to add 720 crew assignments into September as previously planned. In an email sent to union members, Lyn Montgomery, TWU Local 556 President, wrote the following:

“Flight Attendants have been stretched too far and these uncovered pairings would have created insurmountable burdens. Today’s victory is due to the hard work of our Membership, and is a step in the right direction by Management to address the issues we have raised repeatedly about our working conditions.”

Southwest Flight ATtendant
Southwest informed its flight attendants that it would not proceed with plans to add more crew assignments. Photo: Southwest Airlines

The additional flight attendant positions were in addition to the already robust schedule the airline is offering, as it seeks to ramp up flying. However, flight attendants expressed concerns over the matter and took to social media, including pushing the slogan “No Way, SWA!” and using it in hashtags in a “virtual picket.”

Flight attendants express concerns

On Tuesday, the TWU Local 556 Executive Board sent a letter to Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines. In it, on behalf of flight attendants, the labor leaders highlighted their concerns with the job. Flight attendants called for several rectifications.

One includes the termination of Southwest’s use of emergency sick call procedures. The flight attendants expressed concern that these procedures were being used to cover for “poor operational planning” and placed undue blame for irregular operations on the carrier’s sick call issue.

Southwest Boeing 737-800
Southwest’s flight attendants have expressed their concerns to CEO Gary Kelly in a letter. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

The second included stopping the additional pairings into the system. This is where flight attendants scored a victory, with the suspension of plans to add another 720 assignments in September, with the union citing ongoing shortages of appropriate staffing levels.

The third was to end “the abusive nature of extended duty days and reschedules.” While irregular operations impact flight attendant schedules, flight attendants were very concerned about extended duty days and pushing flight attendants to take on more 18-hour duty days to support the operation.

The fourth concern was over working conditions. The letter discussed the lack of transportation and hotel accommodations in some cases that have led flight attendants to resort to sleeping in the airports, hungry and tired. The letter asked the airline to ensure transportation for flight attendants, include time for flight attendants to get food – even if it has to be delivered to the plane or a crew room – and ensuring flight attendants have a bed for the night in a hotel.

Southwest Flight Attendant
Flight attendants have had a difficult year with unruly passengers. Photo: Southwest Airlines

The final concern has been over the growing number of unruly passenger incidents, which have also hit Southwest Airlines. The union is asking the airline to back their flight attendants when air rage incidents go under investigation and provide paid time off for crewmembers to attend the TSA’s self-defense training sessions.

A reckoning over schedules

Southwest Airlines has started to see a hit in bookings and close-in cancellations. In August, the airline expected its capacity, measured by available seat miles (ASMs), to be up 3%. For September, the airline anticipates offering a comparable amount of capacity as it did in September 2019.

This comes as Southwest Airlines faces labor shortages and crunches within its own operations and from its vendors and service providers at airports. This has kept the ramp-up of operations bumpy. Coupled with weather disruptions and increased aircraft utilization, this creates problems with the airline’s operational performance.

Southwest Boeing 737
Southwest Airlines may need to trim some of its schedules to match its staffing levels. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

In the US Department of Transportation (DOT)’s release of data from June 2021, Southwest Airlines placed 9th out of 10 major passenger carriers in terms of on-time arrivals. The airline had a dismal 62.4% on-time arrival rate. Its large peers came out above that mark, with American Airlines hitting 74.3% and Delta Air Lines hitting 86.8% on-time arrivals rate (including regional operations).

On July 22nd, Southwest Airlines Chief Operating Officer Michael G. Van de Ven stated the following on when he expected to get the airline back in shape:

“I think we’ll be better in August than we were in July. And, hopefully, here by the end of the third quarter, into the fourth quarter, we’ll be back to where we wanted to be.”

Southwest Flight Attendants
Southwest is looking to maintain positive relationships with its flight attendants. Photo: Southwest Airlines

Southwest’s flight attendants have joined its pilots in expressing concerns over the airline’s ramp-up of operations. However, the carrier’s pilots have indicated they are contemplating picketing over the Thanksgiving and Christmas travel holiday seasons – which could be a huge hit to the airline’s schedules and operations.

This could lead the airline to a reckoning over its flight schedules. In March, the airline significantly grew departures almost overnight to cater to the rising demand for travel for the Spring Break holiday. The airline continued to maintain significant schedules through the summer and anticipated a stronger fall, considering the circumstances.

However, this came at a cost to the operations. Couple this with a difficult summer for weather, then the airline faced plenty of challenges.

Southwest B737
The ramp-up of operations has proven to be far from simple. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

To try and solve the labor shortages, the carrier offered referral bonuses to try and boost applications. Earlier, the airline also started to increase overtime pay and upped its minimum wage to $15 per hour to try and attract more talent. It also started a push to get more flight crew, with a July announcement of 120 new pilot positions.

Solving the people problem helps fix the airline’s operations. Once it grows its staffing beyond fixing operations, it will be able to get on a growth trajectory, but it is unclear when the airline will get there.

Solving the challenges now is going to be key for Southwest Airlines over the coming years. It is eagerly looking at its Boeing 737 MAX options, which could prime the airline for taking on newer, more fuel-efficient aircraft to replace aging jets while adding more planes to the fleet to support operations and grow.

What do you make of Southwest’s staffing and scheduling woes? Let us know in the comments!

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