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Southwest Airlines union president on labor strike: Pilot shortage is ‘getting out of hand’

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Southwest Airlines Pilot Association President Casey Murray to discuss labor shortages in the airline industry, flight cancellations, and pilots picketing over higher wages and benefits.

Video Transcript

DAVE GRIGGS: Labor issues not, as she mentioned, limited to United. They appear systemic in the airlines industry. More than 1,300 Southwest Airlines pilots on the picket line as they negotiate a new contract. Casey Murray is the president of the Southwest Pilot Association and joins us now. Good to see you, Casey. So what are you and your pilots asking for?

CASEY MURRAY: Well, thank you for having me. You know, really, we want to share with our guests that we have-- that we stand with them and understand that a lot of the issues going on are the same for the pilots. We have the same sort of frustrations. And we've identified, it's really just the misuse of the pilots, and it's an inability of Southwest to correct-- or to connect pilots to airplanes.

- And so then, obviously, some of these negotiations with contracts can go on for years. So what are the expectations or any sort of progress that you see so far?

CASEY MURRAY: Well, we're kind of at an inflection point right now in the industry, as far as pilot goes. There is a critical shortage that's going on. There's also-- all of the major airlines right now are negotiating contracts. And with a limited number of pilots out there to be hired, whomever has the best contract is really going to be able to recruit and retain, you know, the best possible pilots there are.

SEANA SMITH: Casey, are the pilots getting burned out faster? You would think they would be. And then therefore, if they are, do you see this pilot shortage getting even worse over the next couple of months?

CASEY MURRAY: Well, I actually do, and it's going to continue through the rest of the decade. I mean, it's just going to get worse and worse as more and more pilots are being hired. And for Southwest Airlines and SWAPA, we've identified several issues where it's-- again, it's how our pilots are being used. It's fatiguing. And we want to partner with Southwest, and that's part of our contract, is to make sure that our guests aren't feeling it like we are. The reassignments, I mean, it's getting out of hand.

DAVE GRIGGS: Casey, I don't hear you asking for more money, but I assume that as a central part of the argument.

CASEY MURRAY: Well, it absolutely is because, again, we're going to have to compete-- Southwest is going to have to compete against all the other airlines that are actually going to have contracts in place-- new contracts, more lucrative contracts-- before us. But five years ago, we started working on this contract, and we identified a lot of the issues that are affecting Southwest today that have manifested itself today.

Listen, in a perfect world and on a perfect day where there's no weather, no mechanical delays, we have enough pilots. The problem is, that's not where we operate. We operate in a very dynamic environment, and you have to use the pilots correctly.

- So then in terms of the pipeline, when you think of people who are perhaps just fed up and retiring, others who are just leaving the industry completely versus some of the new pilots that are perhaps coming in and being trained, what does that pipeline look like? And what should we expect? Obviously, you have this summer peak travel season on top of us as well.

CASEY MURRAY: Well, we're concerned about this summer. As far as the pipeline goes, everyone is hiring right now. It's kind of a perfect storm that's going on with pilots having the choice for the first time ever as to where they go. They're getting multiple offers from multiple major airlines. But again, this is going to go for the rest of the decade, and it's only going to get worse. And we're seeing less and less people move into the pilot ranks at the bottom. I like to call it cradle to career. And it's taking longer to get there, and fewer and fewer people are entering our profession.

DAVE GRIGGS: How do we fix it?

CASEY MURRAY: Well, I think we have to address it long term. And in the short term, for Southwest, operating a more efficient airline, using its pilots more efficiently is only going to make the day-to-day travel that our guests feel comfortable.

SEANA SMITH: Casey, when you take a look at what's happening right now, taking a look down the line, I guess, have you been-- what is the feedback been like from Southwest? Are they coming to the table to talk? And how effective do you think the pickets like you did yesterday-- how effective are they usually in discussions like this, in these negotiations?

CASEY MURRAY: Well, we were able to stand next to our passengers this week during the picket and share the frustrations with them. We shared those frustrations with Southwest Airlines. It was a chance for about 1,500 people-- 1,370 pilots-- to speak directly to Southwest that, hey, we're not happy. And we are always going to be there. We're the most productive pilot force in the world, Southwest Airlines pilots, and we're proud of that.

But we've also lost 20,000 days off in the past year to being involuntarily come in to work, and our pilots voluntarily do that all the time. We've given 164,000 days to Southwest. We are Southwest Airlines. We do more with less. So we want that recognized, and we want Southwest to come to the table and get something sooner rather than later so that this pilot shortage doesn't affect us in the future and affect network and revenue opportunities for Southwest.

SEANA SMITH: Casey Murray, great to speak with you, Southwest Airlines--

CASEY MURRAY: Thank you.

SEANA SMITH: --Pilot Association President. Guys, this really speaks to a huge issue that we know that we have talked about so many times going on in the airline industry. Weekend after weekend, it seems like already this summer, thousands of flights are being canceled. Travelers are getting very, very upset with the airlines. It's not the pilots' fault, and the pilots are getting burnt out. And it almost seems like there's no real solution coming from these bigger airlines.

DAVE GRIGGS: There's not. And what-- we just had the American-- biggest, largest teacher's union here. We just had manufacturing here and now pilots. And the common thread is there is no solution there to retain or recruit new employees. In particular, we just heard from-- what are they going to do to bring new blood into the system? We are reaching a real dangerous point in this economy in the years ahead-- not enough teachers, not enough pilots, not enough truck drivers, not enough manufacturing workers and no solutions.

- And obviously, these cracks really being opened up because of the pandemic. We saw that airline pilots, airline staff were some of the first to be furloughed and laid off, obviously, when travel was halted. So it also makes people reticent. Should I get back into this industry? Is this something that I can really depend on for, like, security longer term?

SEANA SMITH: Yeah, sure.

DAVE GRIGGS: We need to get that labor force participation number up. You know, it's-- we're at, what? 64%--

SEANA SMITH: Yeah.

DAVE GRIGGS: Where some other countries are north of 70%? I mean, it may not be moving, but maybe that's the solution.

SEANA SMITH: Yeah, and certainly something that will be felt-- when you come to the pilot shortage, something that's going to be felt by many of us over the next several months when we travel.