Washington / Bloomberg
Southwest Airlines Co. pilots, frustrated after four years of unsuccessful contract talks, asked the carrier to guarantee it won’t force them to fly Boeing Co.’s newest 737 before the plane is negotiated into a new agreement for the 8,000 workers.
Adding the 737 Max before it’s listed in a labour deal would violate a provision of the Railway Labor Act that requires both sides to maintain the “status quo” during talks, union President Jon Weaks said in a May 11 letter to Southwest Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly. The act governs negotiations involving airlines and organized labor, setting standards under which a strike can occur.
The letter is the latest skirmish between the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association and the company since an earlier accord was rejected in November. New union leadership elected after the vote told Southwest “no contract, no Max.” The carrier is focused on boosting productivity while holding down increases in labor costs, its largest expense.
“Although we are presently in negotiations, we have been for over four years and have serious doubts management will bring forth an acceptable contract to our members before the Max arrives, based on their past actions and tactics,” Weaks said in an e-mail statement to Bloomberg News.
The Max is on track to enter the market in the first half of 2017, Ray Conner, CEO of Boeing’s commercial airplane unit, said on May 11. That’s earlier than the plane’s scheduled August debut. Southwest’s “delivery commitments remain unchanged” from the third quarter of next year, the airline said.
Southwest, which is set to be the launch customer for the Max, maintains the new plane is just like others in the existing contract except for an updated engine, and doesn’t have to be specifically named. Listing aircraft that can be flown in a pilot contract is a common practice in the industry.
“It is certainly Southwest’s intent and expectation that we would have negotiated a new agreement by the time the B737-800 Max enters service in 2017,” Randy Babbitt, senior vice president for labour relations, said in a May 13 letter to Weaks. “If there are issues related to the B737-800 Max that SWAPA believes must be addressed in the new agreement, Southwest is certainly prepared to discuss those in bargaining.”
Southwest declined to comment beyond the letter, said spokesman Chris Mainz. Both letters were provided to Bloomberg by the union.
“Boeing continues to move the delivery timeline up and pilots, flight attendants and mechanics are being trained and/or briefed on the Max,” Weaks said.
Pilots plan to picket Southwest’s annual shareholder meeting in Chicago May 18 and at the city’s Midway airport.