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Southwest pilots union writes scathing letter to airline executives after holiday travel fiasco

The group decried the airline's leadership as a "cult" and a "good old boys and girls network."
Southwest Airlines Pilots' Association (SWAPA) representatives and pilots demonstrate outside the Southwest Airlines Co. annual shareholders meeting in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., on Wednesday, May 18, 2016. Pilots picketed the meeting to protest the lack of a new contract with the company despite four years of negotiations. The union also recently sued the carrier to block it from flying a new aircraft that's not listed in their current contract.
Southwest Airlines Pilots Association representatives and pilots demonstrate outside the company's annual shareholders meeting in Chicago on May 18, 2016.Daniel Acker / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association has published a letter denouncing the airline's leadership as a "cult" that they say has spent the past 15 years destroying the company's legacy, culminating in the 2022 travel meltdown that left thousands of holiday travelers stranded.

The union, which remains locked in heated contract negotiations with Southwest Airlines, published the letter Dec. 31. It was signed by Capt. Tom Nekouei, a union vice president.

Nekouei says systemwide meltdowns at Southwest Airlines have increased in frequency and magnitude over the past 15 years, citing not just the December failures that left Southwest passengers stranded nationwide, but also incidents from years past. Those include a series of “meltdowns” at Chicago Midway International Airport in January 2014, leading to 130 flights there being canceled; a router brownout issue in July 2016 that caused 2,300 flights to be canceled; and an October 2021 air traffic control problem in Jacksonville that led to 29% of Southwest’s flights being delayed or canceled.

Nekouei laid the blame on Southwest chairman and former CEO Gary Kelly. Kelly served as Southwest CEO from 2004 until last February, and replaced Southwest co-founder Herb Kelleher as chairman in 2008.

"Gary Kelly still reigns supreme on the board of this Company despite having overseen the decisions and setting the conditions that made this most recent fiasco possible," Nekouei wrote, adding that the airline's struggles are "not a Southwest Airlines problem. This is not an employees of Southwest Airlines problem. This is not an unprecedented weather problem. This is a Gary Kelly problem."

Nekouei accused Kelly of staffing the company's senior leadership with individuals of similar backgrounds, namely holders of bachelor’s degrees in accounting from the University of Texas. 

"A recipe for operational ignorance and collective groupthink," Nekouei wrote. "A monetization of the once vaunted Southwest culture and instead turning it into a headquarters-centric cult. A good old boys and girls network indeed," he wrote.

"While this would temporarily bode well for our shareholders for the last decade, it slowly eroded our Company from within to set the stage for our current and complete meltdown," Nekouei said.

Staffing issues, Southwest's unique plane-routing regime, and outdated technology have all been put forward as reasons why Southwest was forced to cancel two-thirds of its flights over the holiday travel period that included the final days of Hanukkah leading into Christmas Day, and stranding nearly half a million passengers. Nekouei argued that each explanation the airline gave for its problems shared the similar theme of underinvestment and refusal to update its operational resources.

The union, Nekouei wrote, "has been beating this drum to management for nearly a decade pleading with them to spend the necessary capital to prevent the ultimate consequence someday."

"As CEO, Gary Kelly made a conscious decision to make the less than necessary investments in tech upgrades in favor of maximizing shareholder return because, well, 'our tech’s been working OK for 20 years,'" he wrote. "While Gary’s financial acumen cannot be debated, his poor operational leadership and judgment have been demonstrated repeatedly with each meltdown and finally laid bare with the current situation we find ourselves in."

In an emailed statement responding to the union's letter, Southwest said that "it has a more than 51-year history of allowing — and encouraging — its Employees to express their opinions in a respectful manner."

Read the full letter here.