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Union calls for action over Southwest pilot fatigue

written by Isabella Richards | April 14, 2022

A Southwest Airlines union has sent an open letter to the company’s board of directors amid rising fatigue reports among pilots.

The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), which represents over 10,000 Southwest pilots, said fatigue has become the Dallas-based carrier’s “number one safety threat”, and its leaders are yet to address the issue.

Addressed to CEO Bob Jordan, SWAPA said there have been a “precipitous rise in pilot reports” of fatigue, seeing rates escalate up to 600 per cent in October.

“Management took a wait and hope approach but reality struck with January and February rates doubling and March reading another staggering 330% increase,” the letter read.

“April is already setting fatigue records.”

SWAPA said the rising fatigue reports are a result of “deliberate deficiencies in the management of our network and pilot scheduling”, and it has “destroyed” the company’s efficiency.

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According to the union, pilots have been unable to obtain hotel rooms for rest following “excessive” reassignments and resulting delays. This means pilots allegedly did not receive the minimum rest opportunity that is federally mandated, SWAPA said.

Pilots have set schedules each month, but at times, airlines will need to reassign their flights, remove or add flights due to varying reasons such as crew calling in sick, delays and cancellations.

“CEO Bob Jordan and President Mike Van de Ven have both gone on record saying that our pilots should be able to fly what they signed up for,” the letter continued.

“During April 1-3, more than half of our pilots didn’t fly they’re originally assigned schedule each day. Reassignment rates this year are routinely in the range of 30% to 50%, after climbing as high as 85% last year.”

In early October last year, the carrier cancelled over 2,000 flights across several days, plagued by weather and limited staffing.

The cancellations cost the company US$75 million, and the airline’s lack of staffing meant that  Southwest was unable to meet the growth in demand.

In July, where Southwest also cancelled thousands of flights, the airline offered incentives for staff to work longer hours to mitigate the demand.

In an attempt to avoid further flight cancellations due to staff shortages, Southwest pledged double pay for staff willing to pick up open shifts over the early July period.

SWAPA said these issues are among others that have caused pilot fatigue, resulting in lack of concentration, reduced flight attention and poor cognitive processing.

“How far will Southwest normalize drift and continue to allow unacceptable risk to enter the decision matrix? How long will fatigue rates and risk continue to rise? At what point will our pilots be unable to break the error chain?” the letter said.

SWAPA said it would “do everything in their power” to make sure passengers are safe but calls Southwest to immediately address scheduling failures that are leading to pilot fatigue.

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