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Southwest pilots' union explains flight cancellations


So a lot of problems over the weekend for Southwest Airlines - to talk more about it, let's bring in Captain Casey Murray. He's president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association. Welcome.

CASEY MURRAY: Thank you very much for having me.

MCCAMMON: So one more time for the record - did Southwest pilots organize a plan to call in sick over the weekend?

MURRAY: Well, absolutely not. And it's now Tuesday. So you know, our data is coming in from the weekend, and what we saw, as well as Southwest, was our pilot sick time was right in line with the same sort of meltdown issues during the summer. So that was right where it needs to be. And then our pilot pickup rate, meaning the extra time they're flying, picking up on their off days, was extremely elevated. So our pilots were out there supporting the customers, supporting the airline and doing everything they could. And I'm very proud of them for that.

MCCAMMON: That pickup rate, does that mean they're volunteering to work extra shifts?

MURRAY: Yes, exactly.

MCCAMMON: So what went wrong? Why were things so bad this weekend, then?

MURRAY: Well, we have - as David said in the lead-in to this, we have an extremely complex network. It is not hub and spoke. So our contract allows for that, and that's what Southwest specializes in. But when there is a, you know, an occurrence, whatever it is, that causes - it happens to cause more domino effects, which we've seen. For us - about four years ago, we started seeing trends with how the airline was reassigning pilots, how they were, how they were covering uncovered trips, cancellations as well as some IT shortfalls. And we've really been trying to work with them to get to that.

What we haven't seen through this summer, through the last couple of years and then through this weekend is really proactive steps that are going to be taken to make sure that this doesn't happen again. And we've offered them solutions. We work very closely with Southwest. And we want to - we actually want them to sort of correct some of these issues so that we're much more efficient and it doesn't take four or five days to recover from a thunderstorm.

MCCAMMON: Right. But you can't help but note the timing. I mean, Southwest Airlines is blaming weather and other factors. You say there's a problem with the system, that none of this has to do with the vaccine mandate. It is worth noting that on Friday, Southwest Airlines Pilots Association asked a federal court to block the airline's order that all employees have to be vaccinated. Why?

MURRAY: Well - and I want to be clear about that. We filed a temporary restraining order, but it was really to force the company to come and talk to us. We've had almost zero discussions with them over the past 10 months of what we all knew was coming, which was a mandate. But our peers - if you look at Delta, American, United, even FedEx, UPS, Atlas Airlines - they all have agreements with their pilots as to how this is going to take place, how - and this is very important. Pilots have medical certificates that go alongside their pilot's certificates. And every six months, we go in. We have a full battery of tests. So the other airlines have addressed the questions around long-term disability, short-term disability, loss of license insurance, which we all carry and how those are going to be affected. So we just wanted to sit down - and we believe that we could have the same vaccination rates that our peers have, but we haven't had the opportunity to answer questions so our pilots could make informed decisions as they go out there to get vaccinated.

MCCAMMON: The flight schedules seemed to be getting back on track today or much closer. What are you expecting to happen next year?

MURRAY: I think that - I think we'll see recovery. I think we will see - you know, Southwest is adding flights. They're hiring. You know, staffing, you know, in the macro environment across the nation is a challenge. Southwest is facing that as well. As far as pilots go, they're looking at hiring more. We want to see them be more efficient. We are the most productive pilots in the world.


MURRAY: And so that's kind of where we're at.

MCCAMMON: Captain Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

MURRAY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Ashish Valentine joined NPR as its second-ever Reflect America fellow and is now a production assistant at All Things Considered. As well as producing the daily show and sometimes reporting stories himself, his job is to help the network's coverage better represent the perspectives of marginalized communities.