Sunday, September 11, 2016

Why labor's anger with Southwest Airlines management is likely to linger

The following story touches on numerous reasons that I made the hard choice to retire this past July after almost 21 years with Southwest Airlines.

I had planned to stay much longer with the carrier but due to the continuing misguided changes (enhancements) to employee work rules and benefits and the pure separation (detachment) between Dallas Corporate and its hard working work groups (all work groups) I made the choice to get out while the getting was good.

I hope you enjoy the following story and please keep in mind that the pilots and flight attendants are not the only work groups at Southwest Airlines that care for our customers as both groups like to claim and or take credit for.

The folks on the ground (customer service agents, operations agents, and ramp agents), are on the front lines everyday making it happen for our customers and flight crews alike! 

Michael Carter: Editor and Chief, AeroPacific Flightlines 

After years of negotiations, Southwest Airlines pilots — more than 8,500 of them — appear to be on verge of ratifying a new contract that will reward them with generous pay hikes over several years and other benefits related to retirement and work rules.

But that doesn't necessarily mean the pilots union, which wields considerable power within the airline, is about to let Southwest management off the hook.

In a lengthy and provocative cover letter included in the Southwest Airlines Pilots' Association (SWAPA) August newsletter, pilots union president Jon Weaks, known by his members to be a man inclined to speak his mind, offers up a very grim assessment of what he perceives to be at least some of the managerial failings of the carrier for which he flies.

The letter, in its entirety, certainly suggests that last month's no-confidence vote by SWAPA and three other key unions — mechanics, flight attendants and ramp agents — was not just about their collective pique over prolonged contract talks, but rather a real concern about how the carrier they work for is being managed.

Referencing the well-publicized system outage that hit Southwest Airlines in late July, Weaks in his letter wrote "last month's operational failure was not the sole reason for the four unions finally speaking up. It was merely the straw that broke the camel's back. There has been a growing history of self-induced failures within our airline, and we have been attempting to highlight them and propose solutions to senior management for quite some time. Thus far, our inputs have fallen on deaf ears."

Weaks went on in his letter to offer an assessment of how Southwest, which has its largest hub at Chicago's Midway Airport, handled its system outage in July compared to the way rival Delta Air Lines handled a similar outage just days later.

Weaks said Delta, a much larger carrier, cancelled about the same number of flights during its outage that Southwest did. But that's where the similarities ended, according to Weaks.

Noted the SWAPA president: "Whereas our 'leadership' was nowhere to be seen or heard from for the first few days of the meltdown, Mr. Bastian (Delta's CEO, Ed Bastian) was in his operations center issuing personal apologies to customers within a few hours of the event's start. It was the Delta CEO himself communicating to the flying public. Two days into the (Southwest's) failure, our CEO finally spoke to employees about vagaries relating to a 'one-in-a-thousand-year flood' and 'brownouts'."

And that isn't all. Weaks was critical of the massive breakdown in customer service that accompanied the July outage.

Wrote Weaks: "Our flying public was left without the one thing that supposedly separates us from our competition: Customer service."

Weaks pointed out that the Southwest meltdown was characterized on social media platforms by "anger that continued to grow for days following the event, whereas the Delta meltdown was characterized by initial anger and then a level of positivity about how the company reacted."

Weaks even wrote of one of the horrific situations that appeared to be a result of the Southwest meltdown and the carrier's inability to get it under control: "Some of the most upsetting stories from our failure, and we know there were many, including wheelchair-bound senior citizens left alone only to be discovered late at night by crew members walking by in a terminal void of employees."

Finally, Weaks ended his provocative letter by stepping back and taking a look at the big picture in terms of how labor at Southwest views management in general and in particular CEO Gary Kelly, whom Weaks apparently believes hasn't fully taken under advisement the historic no-confidence vote last month.

"For a CEO, this is a jarring notice that self-reflection is long overdue," Weaks wrote. "He (Kelly) should ask himself 'what have I done as CEO that could breed so much discontent within my company's employees?'." ... This lack of self-awareness is one of the fundamental flaws within our executive suite that brings us to calling for new leadership. This is not about a contract as he (Kelly) would have everyone believe. In fact it could be considered rather risky to antagonize management when labor is negotiating. ... This is much bigger. This is about sustaining what those who came before us built here at Southwest Airlines."

A request for comment from Southwest Airlines management was not immediately answered.

(Lewis Lazare - Chicago Business Journal)

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