Could United, Southwest, and American Pilot Strikes Disrupt Upcoming Flights?

What to know as pilots at American Airlines and Southwest vote to authorize stirkes, United pilots picket across the country, and worker strikes continue in Europe.

United Airlines pilots picketing

United Airlines pilots are planning an informational picket on Friday, May 12.

Photo by Becca Heuer/United Master Executive Council

It’s been a busy month for disgruntled airline pilots. American Airlines pilots last week voted in favor of authorizing a strike, and Southwest Airlines followed suit this week, voting to authorize a strike as well. As for United Airlines pilots, they are participating in a nationwide informational picket on Friday, May 12, and will be marching at airports throughout the country, including Denver International Airport, Los Angeles International Airport, Newark International Airport, and San Francisco International Airport.

The informational picket is intended “to demonstrate the United Pilots’ resolve and solidarity to achieve an industry leading contract,” according to the United Master Executive Council, which represents more than 14,000 United pilots.

In a letter to United passengers, the union stated that United pilots are operating under a contract that hasn’t been updated for more than 10 years.

Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), said in a statement, “We do not take this path lightly. . . . 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.” Of the 98 percent of Southwest member pilots who participated in the strike authorization vote, 99 percent voted in favor of authorizing a strike.

The pilot actions comes at a time when other industries are rising up as well. Members of the Writers Guild of America, which represents thousands of TV, movie, news, and online media writers, walked off the job last week in the guild’s first strike since 2007. Like airline pilots, guild members are also seeking better pay, among other improvements to their contracts and working conditions.

Why are pilots considering a strike?

Across the air travel industry numerous contract negotiations, including pay raises, were put on hold for years during the COVID-19 pandemic—when the airlines were bleeding cash and were not in a position to increase pay. But now that the airlines are returning to profitability, and in light of the sacrifices that were made during the pandemic (when pilots and airline staff and crew worked tirelessly and often put themselves at risk during the global public health crisis), not to mention a pilot shortage that further underscores how vital a highly skilled workforce is to the airlines’ operations, negotiations are back in full effect.

In March, Delta pilots brokered a deal for more than $7 billion in cumulative pay raises over the next four years. The agreement also included a 34 percent pay increase over the life of pilots’ contracts, as well as better vacation and benefits for Delta’s 15,000 pilots.

Now, the other major U.S. airlines, including American, Southwest, and United, are under pressure to also raise pilots’ pay and offer improved benefits.

United has proposed to match the Delta increase, the Associated Press reports, but it remains unclear whether that will be enough for the pilots to reach a deal with the airline.

“We still have a long ways to go to resolve some of the issues at the table,” Garth Thompson, chair of the United wing of the Air Line Pilots Association, told AP.

Thompson said the two sides are still clashing over scheduling issues, including the union’s desire to limit United’s ability to make pilots work on their days off.

For its part, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association’s (SWAPA) is hoping to address some of the airline’s shortcomings, not least of which was Southwest’s massive operational meltdown that took place this past December.

“We have been attempting to negotiate with Southwest in earnest for years, but they have shown no willingness to address some of the issues that impact not only our pilots but our customers as well, such as scheduling work rules and technology improvements,” stated SWAPA’s president Murray.

Murray noted that Southwest desperately needs to modernize its systems and procedures “to be able to keep pace with other carriers and give our passengers the level of service they expect.”

What do the pilot strikes mean for air travelers?

While the notion of a pilot strike is certainly worrisome for fliers, picketing actions and the recent strike votes from pilots are not likely to lead to pilots walking off the job anytime soon.

“Under U.S. law, airline and railroad workers can’t legally strike, and companies can’t lock them out, until federal mediators determine that further negotiations are pointless. The National Mediation Board rarely declares a dead end to bargaining, and even if it does, there is a no-strikes ‘cooling-off’ period during which the White House and Congress can block a walkout,” reports David Koenig of AP.

Indeed, there are numerous steps that would need to be exhausted, according to the Railway Labor Act, before a strike would be possible.

A spokesperson for American Airlines told AFAR that the airline is confident it will reach an agreement with the pilots’ union and that a deal will be “finalized quickly. The finish line is in sight.”

But the Allied Pilots Association that represents American pilots hinted that a positive outcome isn’t necessarily a given, stating that “the summer travel season is almost here, and we’re all wondering whether this will be another summer of uncertainty for American Airlines.”

Southwest Airlines’ vice president of labor relations Adam Carlisle said in a statement that the pilot union’s “authorization vote will not affect Southwest’s operation or our ability to take care of our customers.”

The airline also reminded its customers and employees that Southwest’s pilots are not on strike. “We are staffed and prepared to welcome travelers for their summer travel plans,” Southwest stated.

Carlisle added that the airline will keep working “to reach an agreement that rewards our pilots and places them competitively in the industry.”

What about strikes in Europe?

Across the pond, there is turbulence as well when it comes to air travel-related strikes. After a series of strikes that already took place in Europe this spring, there are some additional walkouts planned for the coming days and weeks. Here are the proposed strikes that will affect travel and when they will take place.

London Heathrow Airport security staff strike

Authorities at London Heathrow Airport confirm that a strike by security officers has been scheduled for several dates throughout May:

  • May 4-6
  • May 9-10
  • May 25-27

Unite the Union is calling on security guard members at Heathrow to demand higher pay. “The strike involves security guards at Terminal 5 and Campus security guards responsible for checking all cargo entering the airport,” notes security risk and crisis management firm Crisis24.

Heathrow reports that it will remain open and operational during the strikes.

“Unless averted, the action may disrupt airport operations and flight schedules at LHR, including possible delays and cancellations, though airport authorities have stated that contingency plans are in place and flights should operate as normal,” stated Crisis24.

Travelers should expect to experience some longer lines and wait times at the hub during the walkouts.

London train strikes

Train drivers in London have announced that they plan to strike on May 12, May 31, and June 3. Additionally, the rail union RMT said its members (which represent 14 train operating companies) will take strike action on May 13. Travelers planning to be in London on those days should be prepared for delays and cancellations on public transit.

Air traffic controllers and public transit strikes in France

Demonstrations and strikes have been occurring throughout France since the start of the year as French citizens protest the country’s recent pension reforms. Another round of worker protests has been scheduled for June 6. Among those that have been walking out on the job have been air traffic controllers, which most recently planned strike actions on May 1 and 2. As a result, the French Civil Aviation Authority asked all airlines to reduce their flight schedules to and from Paris Orly airport and several other French airports on May 1 and May 2.

During the strike, Air France operated all of its long-haul flights, all flights to and from Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, and about 70 percent of flights between Paris-Orly and other French airports. Passengers who experienced a flight cancellation due to strike activity could opt for either a future flight credit or a full refund, according to Air France.

During strike actions, “last-minute delays and cancellations cannot be ruled out,” Air France said.

Another round of air traffic controller strikes has not yet been announced or scheduled but shouldn’t be ruled out by travelers.

In addition to worker strikes that can affect services such as public transport systems, the ongoing protests in France can create traffic and transportation congestion and service interruptions in and around major cities, including potential delays in travel between downtown and the main Paris airports, Charles de Gaulle and Orly.

Germany airport and public transit strikes

Since last year, Germany has been grappling with a series of on-and-off strikes at the country’s air hubs that have continuously disrupted air travel.

The latest took place at the end of April at the Berlin Brandenburg Airport, where airport employees and personnel went on strike, forcing the airport to cancel all passenger flight departures, the Associated Press reported. It was the third walkout at the Berlin airport this year as workers try to negotiate better pay.

Transportation workers have also been staging walkouts throughout Germany, making it a period of ongoing uncertainty for visitors traveling to and through the country.

What travelers can do if their flight in Europe is canceled or delayed

It’s important to note that while the European Union’s consumer protection regulation, known as “Regulation EC No 261/2004,” provides compensation to passengers flying to, from, and within Europe for canceled and delayed flights, worker strikes are considered “extraordinary circumstances” that do not require the airlines to provide compensation.

For this reason, travelers really need to stay on top of the situation, by monitoring the news and any updates with regards to strike action, so that they can be proactive about changing their flight in advance if need be. Airlines and airports typically post information on their websites as soon as they are aware of any worker strikes that could disrupt operations.

This story was originally published on May 5, 2023, and has been updated to include current information.

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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