Southwest Airlines planes out on the tarmac at the Long Beach airport in Long Beach Thursday, November 10, 2022. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Unionized Southwest Airlines pilots are expected to take a strike authorization vote in the coming months that could result in one of the world’s largest carriers being grounded for an undetermined amount of time. The move would cost the company and airports across the country, including Long Beach, millions of dollars.

On Jan. 18, leaders of the Southwest Airline Pilots Association, which has been at the bargaining table with the commercial airline for years, announced their call for the authorization vote in a video posted to YouTube and published on its website and social media channels.

“Three years in the negotiating room, very little progress, a Christmas meltdown that has just defined what all our problems are have led us to this decision,” President Casey Murray said in the video. “This is not a decision we take lightly, but the time is now.”

The union represents the nearly 10,000 pilots that fly Southwest’s fleet of about 780 aircraft.

Association Vice President Michael Santoro said leadership was hesitant to move forward with the vote, but the group has exhausted every other option to “wake up management.”

The group has several events planned to engage with pilots and educate them about what this action means for them, their families and careers, according to Second Vice President Tom Nekouei.

The vote is slated for May 1, which gives passengers time to book future travel with a different carrier, according to Murray.

“SWAPA’s call for an authorization vote does not affect Southwest’s operation or our ability to take care of our customers,” Southwest Labor Relations Vice President Adam Carlisle said in a Jan. 18 statement. “We will continue to follow the process outlined in the Railway Labor Act and work, under the assistance of the National Mediation Board, toward reaching an agreement that rewards our pilots and places them competitively in the industry.”

Mediation resumed Tuesday.

While still months away, the vote call coming on the heels of the company’s very public meltdown in late December causes concern for customers and those in the industry. The association stated the issues that led to the historic collapse of operations were well known and longstanding. Murray noted pilots have had to deal with mismanaged scheduling for years, which has led to record fatigue calls.

Southwest is Long Beach Airport’s leading carrier, holding 40 of the facility’s 53 allocated daily flight slots, with nonstop service to 18 U.S. cities. A pilot strike would have serious implications at the small municipal airfield.

“Long Beach Airport is aware of the intention for the (SWAPA) to call for a strike authorization vote,” airport spokesperson Kate Kuykendall said in an email to the Business Journal. “It would be premature for us to speculate on how a potential strike might impact the airport.”

The December fiasco saw the plans of hundreds of thousands of travelers stalled or ruined as Southwest canceled nearly 20,000 flights across the country. In Long Beach, the carrier canceled 166, or 44%, of its flights from Dec. 23 through Jan. 1, which cost the facility an estimated $500,000 in passenger fees, parking and concession sales, according to airport staff.

Based on these figures, the grounding of 100% of Southwest’s flights out of Long Beach could cost the facility upward of $1 million per week.

“This decision is not one based on emotion, but I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t angry,” Murray wrote in the Jan. 18 update. “This is a historic but sad day in Southwest Airlines’ and SWAPA’s history.”

Long Beach Airport loses estimated $500K due to mass holiday flight cancellations

Brandon Richardson is a reporter and photojournalist for the Long Beach Business Journal.