Americans are gearing up for an expensive and crowded summer vacation season, and the travel industry has some kinks to iron out. Staffing shortages, a recent history of meltdowns and safety concerns aren’t exactly inspiring confidence in fliers. Adding to the mix of variables, pilots from multiple carriers have voted to strike.
On Thursday, pilots at Southwest Airlines became the latest group to authorize a strike, joining American Airlines pilots who announced the same result of a vote earlier this month. United Airlines pilots haven’t voted on a strike, but did picket at major airports Friday.
While the potential strikes and picket lines aren’t expected to ground planes, “it’s one more thing that the passenger has to think about,” said Omar Kaywan, co-founder of Goose Insurance.
Here’s what to know about potential strikes ahead of a busy summer season.
Why are pilots threatening to strike?
After seeing Delta Air Lines approved a new contract that raises pilot salaries 34 percent over four years, “I think other airlines’ pilots are saying, ‘Okay, me, too,’” said Peter Vlitas, executive vice president of partner relations at Internova Travel Group.
Jim Higgins, a former airline pilot and union leader who is now an aviation professor at the University of North Dakota, said compensation is always a big issue for labor groups. But for pilots, work rule issues are “really, really big,” he said.
The Allied Pilots Association, which represents American Airlines pilots, highlighted scheduling and work rule improvements in its May 1 announcement that more than 99 percent of voting members were in favor of authorizing a strike.
The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association has expressed frustration with the airline’s handling of scheduling work rules and technology improvements - a central issue to the holiday meltdown the airline experienced last year. It too had an overwhelming response in favor of authorizing a strike after more than three years of negotiating.
“Our pilots are tired of apologizing to our passengers on behalf of a company that refuses to place its priorities on its internal and external customers,” union president Casey Murray said in a statement.
At United, pilots have not authorized a strike, though union organizers expected 3,000 people to picket at 10 airports on Friday.
Garth Thompson, chair of the United Master Executive Council of the Air Line Pilots Association, said negotiators have spent years on work-life issues such as more schedule predictability and limiting the company’s ability to reassign pilots to work on days off and reserve provisions.
“We kept the airline alive during the pandemic,” he said. “The company is poised to have wild profits going forward and they’re giving us the stiff arm at the table.”
A strike authorization vote is not out of the question, Thompson said.
“With the current pace of negotiations and the company position, that’s certainly possible in the future,” he said.
[Is the travel industry taking self-service too far?]
Will Southwest and other airline pilots go on strike?
A strike is not coming anytime soon, if at all.
Higgins, who teaches about topics including airline labor relations, said that in order to strike, airline workers have to follow a lengthy process laid out in the Railway Labor Act.
He said if direct negotiations between the parties aren’t successful, both sides go to mediation under the supervision of the National Mediation Board. If that fails, the mediator could declare an impasse - though Higgins said that doesn’t typically happen quickly. If the airline and union are released from mediation and at least one side rejects arbitration, that kicks off a 30-day countdown called a cooling-off period.
“It’s anything but a cooling-off period,” Higgins said. “The clock starts ticking on a strike, or what we call self-help.” Management could also take their own action, including imposing a contract or enforcing an employee lockout.
Even at the end of that cooling-off period, President Biden or Congress could intervene to avert a strike.
“It’s a little premature and it’s too early to be concerned,” Vlitas said. “But I think if we get to the point where you hear words like ‘cooling off period,’ then you need to pay attention.”
He added: “This is like the U.S. debt crisis . . . we all know at the last minute they’ll find a solution.”
What does this mean for my summer trips?
Not much - at least yet.
In a letter to customers, United’s pilots assured travelers that they continue to prioritize safety and often work on their days off and beyond their regular schedules.
“As you board your next United flight, we thank you and stand ready to deliver the outstanding experience you expect from our airline,” the letter said.
Southwest pilots struck a less-than-optimistic tone in their statement announcing the vote results Thursday. Murray, the union president, said the pilots had empowered negotiators to ask the National Mediation Board to release them to be able to strike.
“We want our passengers to understand that we do not take this path lightly and are disheartened that the LUV airline has gotten so far away from the values set forth by Herb Kelleher,” Murray said, referring to the airline’s co-founder. “We want our customers to be prepared for the path ahead and make arrangements on other carriers so that their plans through the summer and fall are not disrupted.”
Higgins said no airline is thus far in a cooling-off period - a necessary step before a strike is possible.
“If I was a passenger, I would keep my eye on the airlines that are going through these,” he said, especially if mediation fails and parties enter a cooling-off period. “I would keep my eye on it for the summer.”
Thompson, the United pilot, said even aside from labor disputes, he expects the summer to be a difficult one operationally due to staffing shortages at airlines and air traffic control, weather and capacity constraints.
“There will be many days where travel will be difficult,” he said.
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Should I adjust my travel plans anyway?
Don’t just rely on a backup plan; start by making a safer plan now. Vlitas says that begins with your choice of airline, asking yourself questions like, “Am I better served on a different airline like Delta who signed a deal with their pilots?”
“The traveler should always look at all the suppliers - whether you are booking an airline, a hotel, a tour operator - and the possibility of their financial liability or any disruption in service,” he said. “And make a decision on how to safely plan your trip in order to have the least chance of disruption.”
That may mean booking summer travel with an airline that doesn’t have looming labor issues. For example, Vlitas said he’s not really worried about most legacy carriers. “Delta, United, Alaska Air, Jet Blue - they’re all good airlines,” he said.
Of course, we know the best-laid plans can’t be guaranteed safe from unexpected travel disaster. It’s a good summer to invest in travel insurance. Even if you’ve already booked your trip, you can buy insurance to cover costs associated with airline catastrophes.
What if a strike cancels my flight?
The airline should rebook you, free of charge. If your flight (arriving or departing from the United States) is canceled or significantly delayed and you choose not to take another option, you’re entitled to a cash refund under Transportation Department rules. It also applies if you are involuntarily downgraded to a lower-tier service than you purchased.
But currently, there are no federal laws requiring airlines to provide passengers with money or other compensation when their flights are delayed or canceled, although the Transportation Department is trying to change that. Airlines establish their own policies on compensation. Last year, the DOT published an airline cancellation and delay dashboard to help demystify what you’re owed by carriers.
If your flight is departing from the European Union or you were flying to a European country on a European carrier, and your flight is delayed or canceled, you’ll likely get a payment. Tomasz Pawliszyn, CEO of AirHelp, an air passenger rights company, says the compensation amounts range from $250 to $600 under regulation EC 261.
What are the airlines doing to prevent strikes?
The carriers all say they are still working with unions to reach agreements.
After Southwest pilots voted to authorize a strike Thursday, the airline released a statement reiterating that the workers were not on strike.
“The vote result has no impact on our scheduled operations,” the statement said. “We are staffed and prepared to welcome travelers for their summer travel plans.”
Southwest and the union are in mediation, and a strike could not move forward unless the National Mediation Board released both sides from that process.
“Our negotiating team continues to bargain in good faith and work toward reaching a new agreement to reward our Pilots,” Adam Carlisle, vice president of labor relations, said in the statement.
In an emailed statement, American spokeswoman Sarah Jantz said the airline remains “confident” that an agreement is within reach and “can be finalized quickly.”
“We understand that a strike authorization vote is one of the important ways pilots express their desire to get a deal done and we respect the message of voting results,” she wrote.
United said in an email it continues to work with the Air Line Pilots Association on what it called “the industry-leading deal we have put on the table for our world-class pilots.”
The company added: “All United flights will operate as planned while our pilots exercise their right to distribute information and picket while off-duty.”