Southwest pilots fed up with pandemic working conditions slam management for sheltering at home while they were 'crammed into hotel shuttles' and cockpits for long hours

·3 min read
Southwest Airlines Boeing 737
A Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-800. Markus Mainka/Shutterstock
  • A new lawsuit from Southwest pilots calls out discrepancies in conditions for frontline and white-collar workers.

  • The suit criticizes management for protecting themselves while pilots risk their health on the job.

  • While many corporate offices have allowed employees to work from home, frontline workers have fewer options.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Southwest pilots are suing their employer over a pandemic-related shift in pay and working conditions, and the spat hits upon the discrepancy between experiences of white-collar employees and frontline workers.

The lawsuit from the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association centers around allegations that the airline "significantly altered working conditions, rules, and pay rates for Pilots." It also specifically calls out management for protecting "themselves by closing down headquarter offices to work from home and meeting virtually."

The suit notes that "pilots, along with other front-line workers, did not have that option," and lists pilots as "amongst the most at-risk work groups immediately after first responders and healthcare employees."

In a statement to Insider, Russell McCrady, Southwest's vice president of labor relations, said, "As always, 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 added, "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."

During the pandemic, many corporate employees have been able to move entirely to remote work. Companies like Nike, LinkedIn, Bumble, Hootsuite, have even taken steps like shuttering their offices to help staff combat burnout.

But frontline workers, like pilots and flight attendants, are required to report for work in-person, due to the very nature of their jobs. The lawsuit notes that because they are "confined to the cockpit for long hours," pilots are unable to comply with social distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the airline industry, flight crews have also had to contend with a spike in angry and violent outbursts from passengers.

After Spirit Airlines canceled thousands of flights earlier this month, one Spirit pilot told Insider that he thought the crisis was exacerbated by executives and flight schedulers working from home while chaos unfolded on the ground.

He said he would have preferred to see Spirit CEO Ted Christie "in an airport buying pizza and handing out blankets," instead of zooming in from his home office.

"Get him on the front lines in the airport, go out there and shake some hands … give out some flight vouchers and make this right. Not hiding at home," he told Insider.

He added that pilots and flight attendants travel every day while being exposed to thousands of passengers, but most corporate employees and flight schedulers are still working from home.

"You could take any 10 pilots and we're all pretty talented guys and gals, we could probably go down there and in a couple months we could fix this airline," he said. "None of us graduated from Wharton or Kellogg or wherever these guys went to school, but we're smart enough to know how to do things right and see a problem and fix it."

The lawsuit against Southwest sharply contrasts pilots' experiences with those of "management employees," noting that pilots have remained "on the road every day," visiting airport terminals, staying at various lodgings, and getting "crammed into hotel shuttles."

"While management employees with minor children (now no longer in schools), were able to work with their kids at home, Pilots could not and their families and children were equally put at risk of infection each time the Pilots returned home from a trip," the complaint says.

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