Dallas (PAI) — For Southwest Airlines Capt. Casey Murray, the air carrier’s massive Christmas meltdown was no surprise. Murray, the president of the pilots’ union there, had forecast it on his podcast a month before.
And Southwest may be the proverbial “canary in the coal mine,” Murray and other presidents of other union groups — flight attendants, ramp agents, pilots and mechanics — warned, back in August.
Because, they said in a joint statement, all the nation’s big air carriers are flying into trouble by putting Wall Street and its profits ahead of their passengers and their workers.
Southwest was just the first, and the worst, of the disasters as the massive cold and blizzards grounded the nation’s air travel over the holiday flying season. But while United, Delta and American, the other big three of the nation’s air carriers, recovered quickly, Southwest didn’t. Flight cancellations reached or exceeded 90 percent for more than a week, stranding flight crews, planes and hundreds of thousands of passengers.
And all this came just after Southwest management announced a $426 million dividend payout to shareholders, its first since before the coronavirus pandemic hit, devastating the entire airline and travel industry.
That’s not a coincidence.
“I fear that we are one thunderstorm, one ATC (air traffic control) event, one router brownout from a complete meltdown. Whether that’s Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or New Year, that’s the precarious situation we are in,” Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), said in the Nov. 12 podcast.
“Years in the making, this meltdown happened because Southwest’s management lost touch with its employees and became fixated on accounting metrics, stock buybacks and institutional investors. This meltdown was predictable and preventable, and the pilots of Southwest saw it coming,” Murray added in a recent op-ed in The Hill.
EXPANSION WITHOUT UPGRADES
The prime culprit is Gary Kelly, the CEO, an accountant, who succeeded late and legendary airline founder Herb Kelleher in 2004. Kelleher, said Capt. Tom Nikouei, SWAPA’s 2nd Vice President, in a column on the union’s website, “spent time on the front lines of the airline; he lived and breathed the day-to-day operation, and he knew the people who ran it.
“Kelly fixated on the bottom line, expanding the airline, but not its control systems.” And the problems began in 2014, he added. By 2016, the systems were so out of date and conditions so bad that SWAPA’s board passed a no-confidence vote in Kelly.
“Kelly made a conscious decision to make less than necessary investments in tech upgrades in favor of maximizing shareholder return because, well, ‘Our tech’s been working OK for 20 years’…His poor operational leadership and judgment have been demonstrated repeatedly with each meltdown and finally laid bare with the current situation,” said Murray.