Southwest’s Labor Chief Departs Amid Rancorous Union Talks

  • Babbitt, a former FAA head, had been with carrier four years
  • Largest unions called for resignation of CEO, COO this month

Southwest Airlines Co.’s head of labor relations is retiring less than a month after four of the carrier’s largest unions sought the resignation of its top executives amid stalled contract negotiations.

Randy Babbitt joined Southwest in 2012 and is departing following more than 50 years in the industry, including a term as head of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, the airline said in a statement Tuesday. Babbitt will work on an orderly transition of his responsibilities before leaving this fall.

Southwest’s pilots, flight attendants, mechanics and airport ground workers called for Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly and Chief Operating Officer Mike Van de Ven to step down earlier this month after a computer system outage caused the cancellation of 2,300 flights and left passengers stranded in July. Three of the unions have been in talks for new contracts for at least three years.

“We are glad to see his departure,” Jon Weaks, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, said by e-mail. “His presence has been a hindrance to negotiations progress.”

Babbitt, 70, declined to be interviewed, said Chris Mainz, a Southwest spokesman. Other union leaders didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Earlier Interview

In an interview earlier this month, Babbitt said he was confident the airline and the labor organizations would reach agreements in spite of the no-confidence vote, which he said was designed to pressure the carrier.

“We’re going to have to work together to restore communications and our ability to team up again,” he said. “Once we get agreements, we have to commit to getting back to running the airline. We do things no other carrier can do by working together.”

Southwest reached new contracts with six work groups during Babbitt’s tenure, and the carrier is “grateful for his many contributions,” Van de Ven said in the statement. Babbitt previously worked for the defunct Eastern Air Lines and later at the Air Line Pilots Association before working as an industry consultant. He led the FAA from June 2009 through 2011.

(An earlier version of this story corrected the spelling of Babbitt’s last name)

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