Southwest Airlines and its pilots union have reached a tentative agreement on a new five-year labor contract that would raise wages by 50 percent over the next few years and increase retirement benefits.
The union’s board of directors on Wednesday unanimously approved the deal, which it said is worth $12 billion, and sent it to the union’s more than 11,000 members, who have until Jan. 22 to vote.
The deal would provide benefits similar to those achieved by pilot unions at the other three major U.S. airlines in separate negotiations this year. Pilots have had the upper hand in union negotiations because they are in high demand amid a strong recovery in air transport after a sharp decline at the start of the pandemic.
Captain. Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association union, said the airline has started to fall behind its peers in attracting and retaining pilots in recent years. “The goal of this contract was to close that gap so we could recruit and retain competitively,” he said in an interview.
Southwest welcomed the deal. In a statement, Adam Carlisle, the company’s vice president of labor relations, said the deal would achieve “industry-leading” pay rates.
Relations between Southwest and the union have at times been contentious. In 2021, the union sued the airline over changes management made during the pandemic. Last year, the company and union began federal mediation regarding contract negotiations. In May, Southwest pilots voted to strike for the first time in the company’s history, according to the union, although federal law prohibits pilots from leaving their jobs without first seeking mediation or other procedures.
Other pilot unions have made significant progress. In March, Delta Air Lines pilots approved a contract that would increase wages by 34 percent over several years. American Airlines pilots approved a contract this summer that gives them a 46 percent raise, and United Airlines pilots approved a 40 percent pay increase.
All three contracts included improvements to vacation and retirement benefits and greater protection against last-minute reassignments. Southwest’s deal will include similar improvements. New contracts from major airlines have also increased pressure on smaller airlines to improve wages and benefits to prevent pilots from leaving for larger employers.
Pilots at major airlines easily earn six-figure salaries. More experienced pilots, who typically fly larger planes on longer routes, can earn several hundred thousand dollars per year. Labor and fuel account for about half of airline operating expenses. In recent months, airline executives have warned that such costs could depress profits.
If approved, the new agreement with Southwest would extend through December 2028. Delta, American and United’s contracts are all in place through at least 2026.
There is no guarantee that Southwest pilots will approve the deal. The airline’s flight attendants rejected a deal this month, sending negotiators back to the table. American and United flight attendants are also negotiating new contracts.