The Leader Of Southwest Airlines Pilots Has Something To Say About His Company’s Big Mess

Southwest Airlines has completely melted down. They didn’t just cancel more flights than anyone else over the Christmas holiday – by a large measure – they’ve failed to recover their operation. They keep cancelling a majority of their flights.

The reasons for this are many. Bad weather. Inadequate staffing. Inexperienced staff (18% of Southwest’s workforce is new this year, with over 15,000 hires since January). And a long-term investment deficit in the systems and technology to properly track their workforce. Their phone system collapsed. Not only couldn’t customers get through to rebook, employees couldn’t get through either.

SWAPA, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, has something to say. Here’s what the President of Southwest’s pilot union is telling the airline’s cockpit crews.

  • I told you so
  • We weren’t willing to make adjustments to our work rules to support the operation without getting most of what we wanted, anyway
  • There are plenty of employees
  • There’s rotten IT
  • The CEO hasn’t called me

Of course there are problems both of sufficient staffing and proper IT to best utilize that staffing. There’s an IT investment deficit which Southwest has been working to rectify for years, way too slowly. The pilot union head isn’t being constructive here, but there’s a legitimate gripe for both employees and customers to say the airline CEO should be more visible in this crisis.

Here’s the full message from the pilot union head to pilots:

Pride and Avarice

Casey Murray, President

I can’t express my appreciation for the dedication and professionalism each of you has shown through this leadership vacuum and failure from the top on down at Southwest. Each communication from SWA’s “leadership” is more tone deaf than the last. And each meltdown has become worse than the last.

Pride and avarice have replaced our once vaunted culture. “Pride” in ignoring solutions that have been, and continue to be, offered to support the house of cards that our operation has become. And even though irrefutable analytics and data have been provided by SWAPA again and again, pride in their outdated processes and technology continues to drive our management. A former VP of Flight Ops once stated “SWAPA has no levers to pull here, but I can” as he dismissed solutions offered by your Union. “Avarice” as evidenced by how our management chooses to continue to reward shareholders instead of stakeholders — the very same stakeholders that the Company relies on to recover the operation during and after every meltdown.

My message from last year, Investing in the Operation lists decades of acknowledgements by management of the exact same failures that defined this meltdown.

SWAPA anticipated that operational challenges might force the Company to offer another Ops Issues MOU like last year, so we polled the membership in November to measure support. Overwhelmingly, you replied that you had no interest in an MOU that was merely a one-time buy off unless the Company included Contract 2020 scheduling efficiencies to help guard against exactly what is happening today. Our Negotiating Committee met with Labor Relations just last week and not once did the Company make an offer, despite the looming forecast. At 1600 on Christmas Eve, I received a call from Mr. Kuwitzky about bonus pay retroactive to December 22. Shortly thereafter, the Company changed their offer to retro from the 20th and forward-looking incentive pay through January 3.

SWAPA’s governance process, as the Company is well aware, requires that any agreement of the Association has to be vetted and voted on by the BOD and time is necessary for that. It is bad practice to do so in such a compressed timeframe, but in an emergency, we can if needed. Your BOD worked through Christmas Eve and Christmas Day addressing it and guiding our committees to support our Pilots. NC Chair Jody Reven has been in contact with Mr. Kuwitzky today, but unless he commits to some Contract 2020 scheduling asks to help mitigate the chaos to your QOL during potential future meltdowns in writing as part of any MOU, then I fear we can’t get there from here.

SWAPA has provided endless data over the past several years to provide solutions, so I want to frame this a different way. We all know that the Company has had its head buried in the sand when it comes to its operational processes and IT. Worst of all, through the numerous and ever-increasing meltdowns that we have endured during the last 20 months (much less the last decade) Southwest has had enough crews in place to operate the planned schedule. It’s not until SkySolver and scheduling roulette begin that the network spirals out of control. The Company’s failed solution? Hire more. Add reserves. Optimize and reassign Pilots online. We aren’t undermanned. We’re undermanaged. Even with the correct number of Pilots on any given day, the house of cards fails, and fail it does with ever-increasing frequency and severity.

Back to this past week, not only was this storm forecasted, but this meltdown was predicted.

Minneapolis and Detroit had lower temperatures, higher winds, and more precipitation, yet Delta managed their hubs with minor delays and cancellations. United had a fraction of the delays and cancellations than SWA in Denver and recovered O’Hare days before we stabilized Midway. So what is the root cause? Pride, avarice, and complete failure and responsibility of management from the very top. Southwest, the once LUV airline, placed blame on you. From your very own VP of Flight Ops who wrote “low Open Time pick up rates and increased sick usage” to the VP of Ground Ops who wrote a six-paragraph diatribe blaming his ramp staff and threatening termination in three of those six paragraphs.

At this point, I’m concerned for our airline. I’m concerned that our CEO hasn’t been in contact with your president or anyone from SWAPA during this crisis. We won’t survive another 10 years as a company if this continues, and maybe no more than five. I’m more concerned for our more junior membership who have 20, 30, or 40 years of a career left here. I’m concerned that this leadership team has been trained to fail by those who came before them. So far, they have shown a complete inability to address ANY of the failures that continue to plague our airline day-in and day-out. They can’t say that SWAPA has not offered to help nor offered solutions. We have been sounding the alarm for years. Here are just two of dozens: Normalization of Drift and An Open Letter to SWA.

At the end of the day, regardless of what those vice presidents above said, you are the last line of defense to our safety culture. You have demonstrated your professionalism and commitment to your customers and safety through enormous adversity, and it needs to be recognized and rewarded. We need to be a part of the solution to the current threat to our airline and our careers. Until that happens, I fear the final meltdown may be right around the corner.


What do you think of this message, from the head of the Southwest Airlines pilot union, as the airline’s operation melts down, cancelling over 60% of flights per day?

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 »

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  1. Amen, Hallelujiah and God Bless. He is spot on. Bob Jordan is an empty suit. A dead Herb Kelleher would run the company better than him. (A List Preferred Here)

  2. @DWONDERMEANT Herb is going to rise from the dead to come back and run the airline thats how bad hes rolling in his grave

  3. They need to do something. From the starting they need to find someone from outside to help them improve and training new worker immediately not just when time is right.

    Stick together and work thing good rather than crying for help. CEO and President and Pilot need to sit and work together. Come one you ready hurt lots people for. Canceled all those date.

  4. its a Chernobyl level disaster. And interestingly Bob Jordan and his team are having a Soviet style response. Death by a thousand cuts. What ultimately is going to happen is the DOT is going to come in with a consent decree forcing SWA to cut 15%-20% of its capacity for a year or 2 with no new growth in markets. You heard it here first. Very similar to the Wells Fargo consent decree from the DOJ

  5. It starts at the very top . The Board of Directors have a fiduciary duty to shareholders and stakeholders. They need to engage in a in depth review of senior management

  6. As a customer looking months ahead I can’t help but to consider the stability Southwest operations. Coming from Baltimore where we saw no snow. Seeing other flights before and after with the same exact destinations why the flight I was on canceled than it dawned on me, at the time I was looking for the most competitive prices other airlines were charging hundreds more. I can’t help to think my flight had the most cheapest air fares and therefore the sacrificial pork $$$$

  7. The Operation was a Success but the patient died.

    SWAPA publicly shaming the BOD and executives while simultaneously patting themselves on the back.

    I wonder how many pilots were on scheduled holiday with their families and refused calls to come in to deal with crisis. I’m sure there were many.

    Lots of blame to go around but this is again unions being unions. Nothing is ever their fault. It is always ‘management’ yet aren’t union members also members of management

  8. Shareholders largely just risk their capital.
    Stakeholders (employees) risk their incomes, livelihood, long term careers, family life, and their future economic well being.

    Shareholders are generally rewarded first to try and make sure they will be loyal to a company/brand and leave their money invested and grow stock value (for future gain harvesting and attracting new shareholders).

    Stakeholders (employees) are generally rewarded last/later and generally in lesser amounts and “loyalty” is generally expected be their employers and then taken for granted at the most inopportune times.

    Shareholder interests and stakeholder (employee) interests are generally not or rarely in alignment with each other.

    Tell me again how this system is our best way to grow profitable and sustainable businesses and increase stakeholder (employee) “loyalty”?

  9. Really!? You bringing up dead people? Chop off the head and start again. There just lucky there has been an catastrophic accident. Are the planes they are flying even safe?

  10. Southwest did bring in some people who knew how to run a great operation: When they bought AirTran. They even put the ex-AirTran VP of Customer Service in charge of the stations and turned their mishandled bag ratio around and improved on time performance. They had new blood in network planning who wanted to fix the flight schedule and routings to minimize disruptions. However, sick of being told “no, that’s not how we do it at Southwest” almost all have left. Most of those individuals are now running ops at other airlines like Spirit and Frontier.

  11. The government won’t do anything – in fact, the only thing they may do is look at moving to 1 pilot flights due to pilot shortages. The pilot unions will gripe, blah blah, about passenger safety, but literally the government doesn’t care.
    It’s already happening in hospitals with nursing ratios. Nurses can gripe all they want about patient safety but it doesn’t matter to the government. Not when billion dollar health insurance and hospitals start to really recognize the problem at hand – worker shortages.
    When growth can’t occur at hospitals/airlines/ any industry – the old Wall Street adage kicks in – grow or die. Hence, its life of death and new regulations are made any way possible. It doesn’t happen overnight, but investment firms like Blackrock and Vanguard who literally stand to make or lose billions of dollars on a companies stock make sure they get their way. With not a lot of improvement in the pilot shortage pipeline, you can bet the power players in DC are already strategizing on how to capitalize on this crisis – and not in a way that benefits pilots making 300k a year wanting to make more.

  12. The nature or being a publicly-traded company in the country with corporate management focused on short-term gains for themselves and “share‘holders’” is that they corporate management try to drive up “efficiency” and do it so much — primarily at the expense of employees/labor initially — that it eventually comes with the kind of massive failures for consumers becoming much harder to ignore than the problems that have been there in less prominent ways for quite some time and then some.

    The preferential tax treatment gotten by publicly-traded company’s corporate management taking a bigger proportion of their total compensation in the form of stock, options and warrants does consumers no good and it shows up at times like this.

  13. The CEO will still get his millions….like he cares

    Corporate greed at its finest with this meltdown.

  14. Maxie Dean,

    The incestuous world of corporate board of directors at big companies and the setup for compensating directors is such that their “fiduciary duty” is short-sighted and disproportionately aimed to maximize executive compensation while claiming to maximize shareholder value. What they are really maximizing is short term market capitalization and their own net worth and market value within the frame of what they think they can get away with doing without it costing them additional financial opportunities.

    The coziest and most crooked “job” around the country is not that of being a politician — although that may come close at times — but of playing the BOD game. As a very honest politician from a very corrupt country once said something like this: “corruption is horrible and risen to unprecedented levels with the political class here and elsewhere, but your country is a master of legalized corruption on a financial scale beyond belief”.

  15. Mets fan in NC:
    No. Saw it myself. Flight crew was there but systems wouldn’t let them – employees – check in to their flight to fly out. Result: canceled
    Take your sock-puppet union bashing elsewhere … this insanity is ALL on the brass/upper-“management”.

  16. Please reread the comments of JS and GUWonder, above.

    What we have here, folks, is a capitalism problem.

    This is a typical occurrence frequently associated with public companies in the United States.

    Someone starts a business.

    Then it goes public to raise capital.

    Now Wall Street dominates.

    How do you get on the Board of Directors? You’re friends with someone on Wall Street. Anyone with industry experience need not apply.

    They pick a CEO who is friends with someone and who is more concerned with stock options, bonuses and pay packages than they are with how the business actually operates or will survive. The typical CEO only lasts five years anyway, so the rush is on to fill pockets as quickly as possible, with no regard for long-term consequences.

    The short term goal is to squeeze as much as humanly possible to jack up stock, options and bonuses. Wall Street will approve.

    The business is screwed up, and is open for mergers and acquisitions, where Wall Street makes even more money!

    The business is either merged, sold off in parts, or goes out of business. Wall Street could care less what happens to employees.

    Why is this always a surprise to so many people?

    Factoid: THREE PEOPLE in the United States have more wealth than the bottom 165 million people in the country. Do you really think this is sustainable?

  17. Obviously Southwest management deserves the blame here, but why are airline union leaders NEVER helpful in these situations? They always come across as arrogant and useless. I don’t understand why EVERYTHING has to be confrontational .

  18. Cranky flier blog has written about southwest’s it issues for many years. I think it was one reason they didn’t fly redeyes. Leadership should be terminated.

    I had an interview with them for an it security position but it was handled poorly. Didn’t matter to me since their pay wasn’t competitive even to a government job.

    Maybe executives should be forced to sleep on airport floors as punishment.

  19. The corporate fascist experimental vax mandate led to many pilots leaving and so many of them have no intention of returning.

    This doesn’t explain the IT nightmare; however, it does explain the pilot/crew shortage.

    Unintended consequences from the hysteria of the mindless masses as it’s common throughout history.

  20. Chris Johnson’s “diatribe” comment is divine. CJ is the rat that gets fired first – way before the CEO or COO set down.

  21. A meltdown of this size at any public company should bring immediate termination of the CEO as soon as the immediate crisis has abated. The expectation is that the new CEO will then bring a new ops team to fix the mess. Think Boeing, Wells Fargo, etc.

    My Fortune 50 company does a lot of disaster planning, no doubt in part because we have major employment centers in Houston (which has shut down on multiple occasions due to hurricanes, electricity, etc.) and California, which is always ripe for an earthquake. I expect most Wall Street firms have similar plans after 9/11 and the 2008 market meltdown. Really it is inexcusable that WN did not have a plan given that major weather events and IT meltdowns are entirely foreseeable if not probable.

    I would be surprised if the CEO is still employed in a month.

  22. 15 years ago, I remember and worked at a Southwest Airlines, management and SWAPA, that had a constructive working relationship. Both management, SWAPA and shareholders like me benefitted. That constructive working relationship seems to be greatly diminished. That is bad news for SWA management, employees and shareholders.
    Name calling and virtue signaling on either side won’t help. It would be sad to think SWA is becoming just another airline, unless you are a SWA competitor.

  23. The relatively new CEO has an IT background, including his college degree. When he was promoted to CEO I thought he might be the one to solve the many IT shortcomings.

    Maybe not, it seems.

  24. There’s no problem in corporate America that can’t be fixed with a carefully created PowerPoint on operational excellence. These days, I like to amp up the good feelings with bonus bullshit about how the new commitment to operational excellence will lead to an inclusive workspace and will also further decarbonization initiatives.

  25. I used to be a proponent of SWA but never again. I’ll never fly it again. What is happening was totally avoidable but management neglected to do anything about it. The whole upper tier of the company needs to be replaced. I wouldn’t be surprised if SWA goes outa business or is absorbed by another airline if they would want it. As they say this fiasco is the one that broke the camels back.

  26. I think it is very disingenuous to blame employees for the debacle happening at Southwest Airlines. It did start with weather. But the primitive scheduling and dispatching system that WN uses is the real cause of all the chaos. How are the line employees responsible for IT issues? Hint: they aren’t! EVERYTHING that happened is on senior management. The same senior management that was home with their families on Christmas Eve. While the pilots, flight attendants, gate agents, ramp agents, etc., were trying to run the airline!!!

    That is the question right now: WHERE was senior management last weekend?

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