Southwest Airlines pilots did not walk out on our passengers. We were stranded, too.

These cancellations weren’t in protest over vaccines, and we didn’t leave our customers stranded. Since months, pilots have been sounding an alarm.

Michael Santoro
| Opinion contributor


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. Untrue rumors suggested that the Southwest Airlines pilots walked out on their passengers to protest the airline’s vaccination mandate policy.

As a Southwest Airlines pilot myself, I can tell you the truth. The truth is that Southwest Airlines pilots were not responsible for the airline’s problems last weekend. Data clearly shows this. To have a walkout you need to have a significant rise in the number of pilots who are not showing up for work. But the reality is, that data doesn’t exist. In October, there has been no dramatic rise in sick calls by pilots. The reality was that Southwest Airlines pilots, flight attendants, and passengers were left behind. Many of our crew members were also unable to find hotels rooms, much like our passengers. 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.

> High rates of Southwest pilots working overtime – both voluntary and involuntary — throughout summer 2021.

> 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 has failed to make investments in IT that improves stability and efficiency. This led to many out-of-position pilots being left in hotels, while Southwest sought more volunteers to cover hundreds of flights without 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. It may seem that Southwest Airlines is understaffed to outsiders, but this is not true. Our pilots are the key to restoring productivity-focused scheduling policies, which were key to our past success, and investing in IT infrastructure.

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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. Anyone who has seen a Southwest Airlines pilot in action or knows them personally will know that they didn’t abandon their customers last weekend. Like most Americans, Southwest Airlines pilots are reliable and hardworking. They show up to work every day, go above and beyond, provide meaningful service, and care about customers.

Captain Michael Santoro is the vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association.

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