Southwest Airlines Pilots Suing Over Covid-19 Quarantines, Voluntary Time Off

The Southwest Airlines pilots union is suing the airline for, it says, making unilateral changes to pilot pay and working conditions without bargaining with the union. That sounds bad, because we know there’s a union contract, but let’s dig a little deeper.

Southwest and its pilots are in negotiations over a new contract. Until one is agreed to (or the federal government releases either party to strike or lock the other out) the current contract remains in force even after being expired.

So what did Southwest do? Southwest Airlines did not furlough any employees at all during the pandemic. Neither did Delta. American and United furloughed roughly 35,000 between them, though United worked out a deal with its pilots not to furlough anyone (by, in part, giving customer upgrade seats away to pilots instead).

  • One of the ways Southwest avoided furloughs is by offering pilots voluntary unpaid leave. The union says the airline should have had to bargain to offer this to pilots, none of which were required to accept. The union calls this “withholding pay.”

  • Pilots who were exposed to Covid-19 were required to quarantine, so they missed trips and lost pay.

From the airline’s perspective, it was entitled to take these actions under the force majeure clause of the contract. According to the airline,

“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,” McCrady said. “The Safety of our Employees and Customers remains paramount at all times, and Southwest has a demonstrated legacy of putting Employees first in our decisions – including maintaining our 50-year history of no Employee furloughs or layoffs throughout the pandemic.”

Southwest’s pilots union has been strongly opposed to requiring vaccines, and wants the airline to offer more money to pilots who do get shots.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. United and American furloughed 35,000 pilots? Like unpaid, forced furloughed? That’s just plain false.

  2. giving Customer upgrades away to pilots? So a customer uses their company card to buy a ticket, gets miles and gets to fly first class for free on the way to work.

    A pilot has to deadhead (which is the only time we get 1st class) and then possible fly up to 9 hours on the same shift. We just like you, do not pay for our tickets ..our company does. Now I can see where the over-entitled sentiment came from years ago. And please do not tell me the people flying for free in 1st pay for their tickets…it is a VERY small percentage compared to the amount of pilots that will get to fly 1st class on the way to their shift.

  3. I said that backwards..pilots are a small percentage of people taking up 1st class seats for deadheads. God forbid your pilot be comfortable before they have to fly you and your family safely around the country for up to 9 more hours. Flight Duty periods can be 16 hours and flight time up to 9… all pilots should be given comfortable seating when it’s available.

  4. When are these covidiots going to die? I can’t wait! If they are going to be around the public they need to be vaxxed. They don’t have the right to potentially kill my children. That I do not allow, do not forgive and do not forget…..

  5. John, Creditan, Jorge,

    No different than the two largest teachers’ unions. Can’t make that up either!

  6. The most insightful tidbit might be from the linked article that says that 90% of United’s pilots are vaccinated but only 60% of American’s pilots are. I have no idea where the information came from or if it is accurate but the difference between the two pilot groups is striking, if it is accurate. American and Southwest are both Texas headquartered airlines but United is the product of Houston-based Continental and still has a large hub there.
    We don’t have good apples to apples data for any of the airlines but if Southwest’s pilots are significantly below the national average for vaccination, then it isn’t a surprise that the company is pushing. OTOH, they do work under a contract and the company cannot arbitrarily change the rules and even if they can, it doesn’t mean that it will result in a significant erosion of the historically strong Southwest employee/employer relationship with an impact on customers.

  7. Hello Gary ?? Did you forget that Spirit was also among those airlines that did not furlough any pilots and flight attendants ??

  8. SMR, maybe you are confused. The person you are describing is a “customer”. You are an “employee”. Over-entitled? How about you fill your planes with employees instead of customers.

Comments are closed.