LONDON – For the first time in its 49-year history, Southwest Airlines (WN) have issued its first furlough notice to 42 parts inventory workers, as it aims to reduce its US$1bn overstaffing costs.

Such notices have taken place following a breakdown in negotiations between the airline and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters as well as the airline waiting for a deal in Washington DC to be made regarding the extension of payroll support.

WN has said that it is more than happy to come back to negotiations with the union involved in the talks. Otherwise, the workers will be placed on furlough from January next year.

Photo: Luca Flores

Disappointing News

Southwest’s Vice President of Labor Relations Russell McCrady offered disappointment at the news in an email statement seen by Reuters.

“This is not the result we hoped to achieve.” It is understood that The Teamsters have not commented on the situation at this present time.

However, WN remains keen to press on with continued talks with other labor unions over bringing costs down. This is majorly important for the airline to continue communication with such unions as 83% of the 61,000-strong workforce are aligned with a union.

Photo: Luca Flores

Continued Difficulty Ahead

Walk-outs could continue to happen at WN due to the technical and legal basis some unions have when employee contracts, which are clear on the matter at hand, were signed.

The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) stated that such language used protects members from even going on furlough at all, which will make things more difficult for WN to deal with.

AMFA did say that it is open to a collective bargaining agreement as well as cost-saving measures, but at no further detriment to its workers it represents. WN Pilots have also pushed back on a 10% pay cut but are still in talks, with the same applying for the flight attendants union too.

Photo: Luca Flores

From Up To Down

It has been a particularly rough year for WN, having witnessed significant success over the last few years. It seems as if the pandemic has reversed a lot of that positive effort undertaken.

In March, the airline said that it would initially cancel 1,500 flights due to the pandemic as it was beginning to take a grip on the US and the rest of the world.

By June, it had announced service changes for the fourth quarter of this year, consisting of significant route and frequency reductions. The airline also did say in that same month that it expected strong survival chances, including the announcement made in July about no furloughs to occur this year.

However, the only caveat with that is back in October, when CEO Gary Kelly conceded that “the ship is taking on water,” hinting at struggling finances as a result of the pandemic.

Photo: Luca Flores

2021: A Tricky Year?

Whilst Kelly kept true to his promises about no furloughs in 2020, it seems that he has done all he can in order to keep both people employed, but also to keep the ship still running.

2021, whilst expected to witness the tail-end of the pandemic, will still prove to be difficult due to what is forecasted to be a difficult winter financially. All hopes will be on the Summer 2021 season and whether the industry can begin to return to some level of normality going forward.

In the meantime, airlines such as WN will continue to weather such storms and take whatever action is necessary, regardless of whether it will mean placing thousands of people out of work.

Featured Image: Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-700. Photo Credit: Luke Ayers