Southwest Air Flight Attendants Join CEO No-Confidence Vote

  • Pilots, mechanics also call for replacement of top executives
  • Computer failure in July led to flights canceled, delayed

Southwest Airlines Co. flight attendants joined pilots and mechanics in calling for the ouster of the discount carrier’s top executives after a computer system failure snarled flights.

Leaders of Transport Workers Union Local 556 approved the resolution Tuesday, union President Audrey Stone said in an interview. The airline’s pilots and mechanics unions announced similar votes on Monday calling for the replacement of Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly and Chief Operating Officer Mike Van de Ven. The TWU represents 14,500 Southwest employees.

The unions have criticized Kelly for spending billions on stock buybacks instead of plowing the money into updates of the airline’s aging computer system and focusing too much on cost controls. The TWU vote brings the number of full-time, active Southwest employees represented by unions backing the no-confidence statement to more than 24,000, the company said. The carrier has about 52,300 workers. All three of the labor groups are in contract talks with the Dallas-based airline.

Kelly and Van de Ven “have failed to recognize and adequately fix the operational failures that continue to plague our airline,” a union statement said. “Our flight attendants, along with other front-line employees, end up bearing the brunt of these failures.”

Labor Talks

Southwest reiterated a statement issued Monday saying the no-confidence votes were an effort to pressure the airline into meeting demands during contract talks, spokesman Chris Mainz said in an e-mail.

“We want to work with them, not against them,” Randy Babbitt, Southwest’s senior vice president for labor relations, said in the statement.

The labor groups cited technical breakdowns that affected flight operations during the busy summer and holiday travel seasons over the past several years, including last month’s computer failure. The airline is investing about $500 million in a new domestic reservation system that will come online in phases over the next three years.

Southwest is “studying every single angle” to determine what caused an aging router and its backup system to fail in the July disruption, Kelly has told workers. While those computers were restored about 12 hours later, flights continued to be canceled or delayed for several days as the carrier attempted to get crews and planes in the right locations. Other problems occurred in 2015 and 2014.

Kelly, 61, became chief executive officer at Southwest in 2004 and added the chairman’s title in 2008. He’s been with the airline for 30 years. Van de Ven, 54, has led operations since 2006.

Billions for Buybacks

Southwest spent $700 million to buy back stock in the second quarter to complete a $1.5 billion repurchase program, and its board authorized another $2 billion plan in May. The shares have fallen 17 percent this year.

Rejected contract agreements and lack of progress in negotiations have led to “the highest level of labor strife and dissatisfaction among front-line employees” in its history, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association said Monday.

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