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Pilots union at Southwest blames longstanding problems for flight disruptions

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The pilots who fly millions of Southwest Airlines passengers each year say the waves of canceled flights over the past few days point to long-standing problems at the airline. So we're going to ask Casey Murray about this. He's an airline captain and president of the Southwest Airlines Pilot Association.

Good morning, Casey.

CASEY MURRAY: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

FADEL: Thank you for being here. I mean, I guess I want to start, Casey, with whether you were surprised that this level of a disruption happened at Southwest when this - the storm came.

MURRAY: No. I absolutely wasn't surprised. I don't think most of our pilots were surprised. This has been an ongoing issue for Southwest for really quite a few years. And the last 20 months, these meltdowns have seemed to occur. They've been coming with more frequency, and they've - becoming more severe. What happened over the Christmas weekend is really catastrophic.

FADEL: Now, your union has been sounding the alarm about this problem and about a lack of investment, especially when it comes to technical advances for years. Why weren't they addressed?

MURRAY: Well, I think that's a question for Southwest. But on our end, we've seen an increasing amount of inefficiency of how crews are being used. Southwest is having really some major issues connecting pilots to airplanes, connecting crews, flight attendants as well to airplanes. And it's been getting worse. And it's a function, as Kyle just said, of infrastructure and IT, but it's also processes. We're still using not only IT from the '90s, but also processes when our airline was a tenth of the size. And it's really just not scaled for an operation that we have today.

FADEL: So when you have this level of cancellations, you can't link the crew and the pilots to the planes?

MURRAY: That's correct. And the inefficiencies then - well, inefficiencies is the best word because crews get out of position. They have to start deadheading around. And 14 months ago, we had a major meltdown over Columbus Day. And it started with a summer kind of, you know, simple thunderstorm in Florida. And it cascaded to where, by the end of the three days, we had 1,200 pilots who were at work but never touched the wheel of an airplane, meaning they were either lost in hotels or deadheading around the system. And you just can't operate like that.

FADEL: Let's talk about what happened this weekend and what's still happening. This turmoil's still going on. How has it affected your fellow pilots, other airline workers? What were they going through? I mean, we heard a lot about what the passengers were going through, but what was happening with employees?

MURRAY: Well, we really feel, you know, for our customers who are stranded, who lost memories, who lost - you know...

FADEL: Yeah.

MURRAY: ...They're out money. But the employees were kind of left to their own devices. Whether it was pilots, whether it was customer service agents, whether it was ramp agents - they weren't given the tools to do their job; nor were they given the leadership to answer the questions and to be able to provide solutions. And really, that's where we really failed, was not leading and not being able to give our employees the tools.

FADEL: Does any of these problems with the processes and the tech issue - does that actually compromise safety of air travel?

MURRAY: Well, at the end of the day, our pilots do a great job of mitigating risk, and ultimately it falls on them. We have actually - as our pilots association - have done a written letter to - not a written - an open letter to our management just earlier this year about these exact issues but how it's causing unprecedented amounts of fatigue in our pilots. And we've seen fatigue calls go through the roof and continue to increase. So - but that's part of the safety chain.

And breaking the error chain that causes accidents is our pilots' ability to make that call and go, listen, I am tired. You need to take me off this flight. So at the end of the day, our pilots are responsible for mitigating and stopping, you know, that risk. And I think we do a fine job. But that being said, it's putting more and more pressure on our crews, you know, to make those decisions and understand when they're tired and taking that out of the error chain.

FADEL: The level of cancellations this weekend, especially with Southwest, have reignited conversation about holding airlines accountable. Have you sat down with anyone in the government to discuss what happened?

MURRAY: I did speak to Secretary Buttigieg yesterday. And we had a great conversation. We discussed, you know, the level and the chaos with this latest meltdown and kind of what we were seeing on our side. I was very pleased. He, you know, was very concerned, as I was, about our customers. But also we had a good conversation about what our employees faced and the challenges that were facing them as well.

FADEL: Casey Murray is president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association. Thank you so much.

MURRAY: Thank you.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

We reached out to Southwest Airlines. They declined to comment. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.