DENVER — Hundreds of Southwest Airlines flight attendants and pilots, equipped with signs and megaphones, lined the streets near McGregor Square in downtown Denver Wednesday afternoon to demonstrate how dire their situation amid ongoing contract negotiations. The area was flooded with chants that included phrases like "make it right" and "Denver is a union town!"
The Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 556 represents more than 15,000 Southwest Airlines flight attendants. Lyn Montgomery is the president and lead negotiator for the union.
“I have a deep passion for the smell of jet fuel," Montgomery said, laughing.
Montgomery may find moments to smile on Wednesday, but the reason the group gathered in Denver is no laughing matter. They rallied near McGregor Square, saying that spot was chosen because of a Southwest Airlines celebration happening there.
“Flight attendants have shown up here on their days off because they are angry at Southwest Airlines," said Montgomery. “It's not a great place to work. Flight attendants are feeling abused with extended duty days, massive reschedules, no certainty in their work life. And they are not able to make their bills with the rising cost of inflation... They've been without a raise since November 1 of 2019. And they are fed up, they need to see that they can meet inflation and pay their bills. They're having to work more just to survive, and they're ready to fight.”
Montgomery said the union is currently in the federal mediation process of negotiations. One of the key points of the negotiations, according to Montgomery, is the way flight attendants are compensated.
“It's a little complicated to explain, but basically, there's a lot of hours in the day that flight attendants don't get their maximum amount of pay... While we're boarding, because that's the time period in which we're not making our maximum pay. And flight attendants are tired of giving free time to the company," said Montgomery. “You might have a 10 and a half hour day, where you're only getting paid for six and a half hours of work.”
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reports a "rapid growth" in the number of passengers who have disrupted flights with "threatening or violent behavior" since 2021. A national survey conducted by the Association of Flight Attendants shows nearly one in five experienced "physical incidents" in 2021.
Eileen Rodriguez has been a flight attendant for 30 years. She feels as though the profession has been pushed aside, and her mental health is suffering.
“It's become draining the last few years. It's just, it's so hard," said Rodriguez. “My biggest challenge would actually be anxiety and depression, just trying to figure out how to make ends meet without a contract.”
Rodriguez said she is part of a committee at Southwest Airlines that works on critical incident stress management.
“We have flight attendants call in every day that are extremely, extremely depressed and anxiety ridden, where they can't even come to work," said Rodriguez.
The flight attendants union will go back to the table with federal mediators in October. The union would have to conduct a strike authorization vote before any strike would happen.
Close to the flight attendant picket line was a group of pilots doing the same thing. The president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, Casey Murray, said they represent more than 10,000 pilots in the company. One of their biggest issues with the company pertains to scheduling.
“Our main sort of focus is on the scheduling system, to make sure that the airline can operate efficiently and predictably for our pilots, but more importantly, for our customers. Because without our customers, we're not an airline," Murray said. “It's how they connect pilots to airplanes, and that's where they're falling down. And that's where the struggles are. It's ultimately what caused the meltdown that everyone in the country heard about over Christmas.”
Murray said pilots are facing increasing amounts of fatigue as well.
“Our fatigue rates are through the roof. In July, they were the highest Southwest Airlines has ever seen," Murray said. "Fatigue is cumulative. So you're forced to work an extra day, you're forced to work longer hours, you're not getting off when you're expected to, you're in the hotels."
The pilots have already completed a strike authorization vote, according to Murray. The union is currently negotiating their contract.
“If contract negotiations stall, you will see a strike," said Murray. “If I was a customer, I'd be very concerned about that... We're ready, and if that's what we have to do, we'll do it. We'd rather see a contract, we'd rather see an industry-leading contract. But we'll do whatever it takes.”
In a statement, Southwest Airlines said it will keep working to reach agreements with its pilots and flight attendants.
Southwest Airlines respects the rights of our Employees to express their opinions, and we do not anticipate any disruption in service from the demonstration of off-duty Employees. Our negotiations continue, and we’ll keep working with the assistance of the National Mediation Board to reach agreements that reward our Pilots and Flight Attendants and place them competitively in the industry. For more than 52 years, we’ve maintained a legendary Southwest Culture that honors our valued Employees, and we look forward to continuing that tradition.
Th|AIR|apy is a mental health resource dedicated to people working in the aviation industry. Their text line is a resource for anyone who needs to talk, and can be reached at (833) 532-1096.