Monday, May 27, 2024

Southwest Airlines and its pilots union have reached a tentative deal on a new, five-year labor contract that would raise wages 50 percent over the next several years and increase retirement benefits.

The union’s board unanimously approved the deal, which it said was worth $12 billion, on Wednesday, sending it to the more than 11,000 union members, who have until Jan. 22 to cast a vote.

The deal would provide benefits that are similar to those secured by pilots unions at the three other large U.S. airlines in separate negotiations this year. Pilots have had the upper hand in labor talks because they are in high demand amid the strong recovery in air travel after a steep decline in the early part of the pandemic.

Capt. Casey Murray, the president of the union, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, said that the airline had started to lag behind its peers in attracting and keeping pilots in recent years. “What this contract was about was closing that gap so that we could recruit and retain competitively,” he said in an interview.

Southwest welcomed the deal. In a statement, Adam Carlisle, vice president of labor relations for the company, said that the agreement would deliver “industry-leading” pay rates.

Relations between Southwest and the union have been contentious at times. In 2021, the union sued the airline over changes made by management during the pandemic. Last year, the company and union entered federal mediation over contract talks. In May, Southwest’s pilots voted to approve a strike for the first time in the company’s history, according to the union, though federal law prohibits pilots from walking off the job without first pursuing mediation and other steps.

Other pilots unions have achieved big gains. In March, pilots at Delta Air Lines approved a contract that would boost wages 34 percent over several years. Pilots at American Airlines this summer approved a contract that grants them a 46 percent raise, and pilots at United Airlines approved a 40 percent pay increase.

All three contracts included improvements to vacation and retirement benefits and greater protections against last-minute reassignments. Southwest’s deal will include similar improvements. The new contracts at the big airlines have also increased pressure on smaller carriers to improve pay and benefits to keep pilots from leaving for larger employers.

Pilots at big airlines easily earn six-figure salaries. The most senior pilots, who typically fly larger planes on longer routes, can earn several hundred thousand dollars a year. Labor and fuel account for about half of airlines’ operating expenses. In recent months, airline executives have warned that such costs could push down their profits.

If approved, the new Southwest deal would extend through December 2028. The contracts at Delta, American and United are all in effect through at least 2026.

There is no guarantee that Southwest’s pilots will approve the deal. The airline’s flight attendants rejected a deal this month, sending negotiators back to the table. Flight attendants at American and United are also negotiating new contracts.

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