LAS VEGAS (KLAS) – Thousands of United Airlines pilots took steps to avoid strikes Friday, while Southwest pilots announced the potential of one this late summer.
Harry Reid International Airport saw 60 of the reported 3,000 United workers and Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) who came in on their off days to picket.
Brian Bunkers, a 737 captain of the airline, said pay and benefits are part of the problem, but more so, it’s the scheduling.
Bunkers said once a pilot clocks in, they can be forced extended into days they were not expecting to work.
“They can be reassigned to working on their days off, so they can’t count on their kids’ dentist appointments, t-ball games, anniversaries, birthdays,” Bunkers said outside terminal three Friday morning. “Our current work rules are over 11 years old. You may have seen recently other airlines authorizing strikes, and that is one step that we can take that will possibly come in the future.”
Captain Tom Nekouei, second vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), told 8 News Now that their airline, on the other hand, is losing a pilot a day on average to their competitors. Those leaving, he said, are similarly looking for scheduling margins that are not so tight.
“It’s just unsustainable because we’re short pilots, to begin with,” Nekouei said during a virtual interview Friday afternoon. “We’ve been in contract negotiations for well over three years now.”
“I can tell you with near certainty that there will be more meltdowns operationally at Southwest Airlines, just due to the lack of margin that they build into the schedules and the lack of pilots.”
Those frustrations materialized Thursday as SWAPA announced of its members eligible to vote, 99% authorized a strike that could begin in late summer and continue through the winter holiday travel season.
But, to both union members and officials, the goal is to not strike. Conversely, Nekouei said the authorization vote is meant to expedite negotiations.
“This strike authorization vote was really, hopefully, the surest way to not to go on strike,” Nekouei said. “We hope this is the impetus for our leadership to show up and actually force a lot of movement in the room.”
While some travel professionals cast doubt that these potential strikes will come to fruition, based on past experiences, it’s not impossible.
Travel Agent Robert Bridel of Fanda Travel said if they become reality, it could mean potential impacts to passengers, especially as he says international travel to the recently-opened borders of Australia, China, and Japan is surging.
“We haven’t experienced any serious strike like that. It’s mostly been threats of strikes,” Bridel said during a virtual interview Friday. “If you have 30% or 35% of the total flights canceled on us, the good news is it’s mostly domestic and not international -that’s when it really becomes a problem- it’s just going to take us time, and most customers I think will understand.”
Bridel added that several airlines have policies implemented after the COVID-19 pandemic began that allow flyers to cancel flights without penalties against them. They commonly receive credits to use on flights on other airlines.
Neither airline union is currently on strike. Federal law requires a process that could take months before a strike is implemented.
When asked how flyers should navigate a potential strike against Southwest flights, Nekouei said, “I’d certainly make alternate travel plans.”
A United Airlines representative sent the following statement to 8 News Now in response to Friday’s national pickets:
“We’re continuing to work with the Air Line Pilots Association on the industry-leading deal we have put on the table for our world-class pilots. All United flights will operate as planned while our pilots exercise their right to distribute information and picket while off-duty.”
A Southwest Airlines representative directed 8 News Now to the following response when asked about the SWAPA authorization to strike vote:
“Our negotiating team continues to bargain in good faith and work toward reaching a new agreement to reward our Pilots. This anticipated authorization vote result does not change our commitment to the negotiation process, and we look forward to continuing discussions with SWAPA at the negotiating table.” – Adam Carlisle, Vice President of Labor Relations at Southwest Airlines
Both airlines acknowledge flights are currently not impacted by the pickets or vote.