Southwest Airlines and its pilots union have reached a tentative deal on a new, five-year labor contract that would raise wages and increase retirement benefits.
The union’s board approved the deal, which it said was worth $12 billion, on Wednesday, sending it to a vote of the more than 11,000 union members, who have until Jan. 22 to cast a vote.
The deal, details of which were not immediately made public, is expected to provide benefits that are similar to those secured by pilots unions at the three other large U.S. airlines in separate negotiations this year. Pilots have had the upper hand in labor talks because they are in high demand amid the strong recovery in air travel after a steep decline in the early part of the pandemic.
“We know that the last few years have been difficult for our pilots as well as our customers,” Captain Casey Murray, the president of the union, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, said in a statement. He added that the agreement “rewards our pilots as well as improving reliability for our passengers.”
Relations between Southwest and the union have been contentious at times. In 2021, the union sued the airline over changes made by management during the pandemic. Last year, the company and union entered federal mediation over contract talks. In May, Southwest’s pilots voted to approve a strike for the first time in the company’s history, according to the union, though federal law prohibits pilots from walking off the job without first pursuing mediation and other steps.
Other pilots unions have secured big gains. In March, pilots at Delta Air Lines approved a contract that would boost wages by 34 percent over several years. Pilots at American Airlines this summer approved a contract that grants them a 46 percent raise and pilots at United Airlines approved a 40 percent pay hike.
All three contracts included improvements to vacation and retirement benefits, and other changes, including greater protections against last-minute reassignments. The deals have also increased pressure on smaller airlines to improve pay and benefits to keep pilots from leaving for larger airlines.
The Southwest union said in a statement that the deal included “significant gains in compensation” and “improvements to work rules and flying schedules, better disability coverage, and increases to retirement benefits.”
Pilots at big airlines easily earn six-figure salaries. The most senior pilots, who typically fly larger planes on longer routes, can earn several hundred thousand dollars a year. Labor and fuel account for about half of airlines’ operating expenses. In recent months, airline executives have warned that such costs could push down their profits.
If approved, the new Southwest deal would extend through December 2028. The contracts at Delta, American and United are all in effect through at least 2026.
There is no guarantee that Southwest’s pilots will approve the deal. The airline’s flight attendants rejected a deal this month, sending negotiators back to the table. Flight attendants at American and United are also negotiating new contracts.