Southwest Airlines and its pilots union have reached a tentative agreement on a new five-year labor contract that would increase salaries and retirement benefits.
The union's board approved the deal, which it said was worth $12 billion, on Wednesday, putting it to a vote by the union's more than 11,000 members, who have until Jan. 22 to cast their votes.
The deal, details of which were not immediately made public, is expected to provide benefits similar to those won by pilot unions at the other three major U.S. airlines in separate negotiations this year. Pilots have had the upper hand in labor negotiations because they are in high demand amid the strong recovery in air travel after a sharp decline in the early part of the pandemic.
“We know the past few years have been difficult for both our pilots and our customers,” Capt. Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, said in a statement. He added that the agreement “rewards our pilots and improves reliability for our passengers.”
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 the union began federal mediation in contract negotiations. In May, Southwest pilots voted to approve a strike for the first time in the company's history, according to the union, although federal law prohibits pilots from walking off the job without first engaging in mediation and other measures.
Other pilot unions have reaped big benefits. In March, Delta Air Lines pilots approved a contract that would increase wages by 34 percent over several years. pilots in american airlines This summer they approved a contract that gives them a 46 percent raise and United Airlines pilots approved a 40 percent salary increase.
All three contracts included improvements to vacation and retirement benefits and other changes, including greater protection against last-minute reassignments. The deals have also increased pressure on smaller airlines to improve salaries and benefits to prevent pilots from leaving for larger airlines.
Southwest's union said in a statement that the deal included “significant gains in compensation” and “improvements in work rules and flight schedules, better disability coverage, and increases in retirement benefits.”
Pilots at large airlines easily earn six-figure salaries. More experienced 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 airline operating expenses. In recent months, airline executives have warned that such costs could eat into their profits.
If approved, Southwest's new deal would run through December 2028. Delta, American and United's contracts are all in place until at least 2026.
There is no guarantee that Southwest pilots will approve the deal. The airline's stewards rejected a deal this month, sending negotiators back to the table. American and United flight attendants are also negotiating new contracts.
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