Pilots' union sues Southwest over Covid policies

The union that represents Southwest Airlines pilots has sued the carrier, alleging that Southwest has violated their collective bargaining agreement by unilaterally making changes to pilot pay and working conditions during the Covid-19 crisis.

The Aug. 30 lawsuit, filed by the Southwest Airlines Pilot Association (SWAPA) in U.S. District Court in Dallas, zeroes in on pilot pay related to Covid-19 quarantines and on the Emergency Extended Time-off (EXTO) program Southwest offered pilots last summer. 

The EXTO program, under which Southwest pilots took leaves during the pandemic, was implemented without union agreement, SWAPA said. 

The lawsuit’s filing comes as Southwest pilots have balked at heavy workloads over the summer that came after demand spiked faster than the carrier could perform the pilot retraining necessary to bring them back from leave. 

Last week, Southwest said it would cut 27 flights per day in October in an effort to achieve a more reliable operation. 

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“SWAPA had anticipated these staffing issues months earlier and offered solutions to management,” the lawsuit states. “As hundreds of flights were being (and continued to be) canceled and pilots are being overworked on the line and stranded overnight, all the while still at risk of Covid, and ever more with the delta and lambda strains, SWAPA has been vocal in demanding action by management.”

SWAPA also hasn’t agreed to Southwest’s current quarantine pay policy. The union alleges that by June, Southwest had ceased paying quarantined pilots for missed work. The carrier formally changed its policy for infectious-disease control in May to state that employees “may” be paid for Covid-19-related events instead of “will be paid,” SWAPA said. 

Russell McCrady, Southwest’s vice president of labor relation, disputed the allegations in a prepared statement on Aug. 31. 

“Southwest Airlines, like the rest of the industry, has been forced to respond to the unpredictable challenges presented by the global Covid-19 pandemic. The airline disagrees with SWAPA’s claims that any Covid-related changes over the past few months required negotiation,” McCrady said. 

“As always, Southwest remains committed to pilots’ health and welfare and to working with SWAPA, and our other union partners, as we continue navigating the challenges presented by the ongoing pandemic.”

The collective bargaining agreement between SWAPA and Southwest expired in September of 2020, but SWAPA argues that its provisions remain in effect while negotiations continue due to the Railway Labor Act, which governs dealings between airlines and airline unions. 

SWAPA is asking the court to require Southwest to reverse any unilateral policies related to pilots’ Covid-related employment and pay as well as the pilot emergency leave program. 

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