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More than 1,300 Southwest Airlines pilots march on picket line, say they're overworked and underpaid

This is just one of the latest developments in the ongoing airline pilot shortage that has riled aviators across the industry.
Image: Southwest Airlines pilots on a picket line in Dallas on Tuesday.
Southwest Airlines pilots on a picket line in Dallas on Tuesday.NBC 5

More than 1,300 Southwest Airlines pilots stood on a picket line Tuesday in Dallas, sounding off about what they say are unfair working conditions and inadequate pay, according to the pilots' union.

"The Pilots of Southwest have been in contract negotiations with the company for more two years with no meaningful movement toward a new contract," the union said in a statement to NBC News, adding that "pilot fatigue rates have reached an all-time high."

Pilots from across the commercial airline industry have called attention to chronic staffing shortages that have forced carriers to either delay or cancel many flights.

Southwest Airlines told NBC News in a statement that it "respects the rights of our Employees to express their opinions, and we do not anticipate any disruption in service as a result of this single demonstration."

"For 51 years, we've maintained a legendary Southwest Culture that honors our valued Employees," the carrier said.

Staffing shortages have been compounded by two converging forces: an overwhelming surge in travel thanks to the global easing of pandemic restrictions, and the summer getaway season. The Transportation Security Administration has said it is processing its highest number of passenger screenings since 2019, to the tune of more than 2.4 million daily travelers, as of June 20.

The additional traffic, plus lower numbers of pilots and flight crews, have translated to serious headaches for travelers. But some of the pilots are pointing fingers at their own airlines.

Capt. Casey A. Murray, a pilot and president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, has said previously that pilots have been "under a lot of stress for the past year," noting that frequent flight reassignments have left pilots feeling fatigued and frustrated.

At least 30% of pilots are being reassigned everyday, Murray said. He said Southwest has about 9,600 pilots but declined to say how many more it needs to hire to address the shortage.

Murray said there have also been failures in connecting pilots to airplanes, sometimes because of weather events and staffing shortages, and other times, for reasons unknown. 

“If you’re going to continue to misuse us, you’re going to continue to be short of staffing,” Murray said.

Some flight executives have acknowledged the challenges facing the industry at the moment. On a quarterly earnings call in April, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said, "The pilot shortage for the industry is real."

"Most airlines are simply not going to be able to realize their capacity plans because there simply aren't enough pilots, at least not for the next five-plus years,” he said.

Airlines have also recently struggled with other routine disruptions such as weather and flight cancellations. JetBlue AirwaysDelta Air LinesSpirit AirlinesSouthwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines have already scaled back their spring and summer travel schedules to give themselves more room to handle disruptions.