Baggage handlers at Southwest Airlines are no longer baring their chests to boast that “Bags Fly Free” in company ads.
Instead, dozens of ground workers picketed outside of Dallas Love Field on Tuesday, carrying signs featuring Southwest’s new heart logo broken in half, with the words: “It’s Just a Machine Without a Heart.” The signs played off the Dallas-based carrier’s new television ads that say “Without a heart, it’s just a machine.”
More than 10,000 ground workers at Southwest have been without a new contract for more than three years and talks between Transport Workers Union Local 555 and company management have been tense. Although both sides met this month to negotiate, they hadn’t met since July.
At Love Field, union members passed out fliers to passengers leaving for Thanksgiving trips saying that Southwest has mishandled more bags so far this year than any other major U.S. airline.
“Southwest is putting profits before people,” said Charles Cerf, president of TWU Local 555. “We’re afraid that over the years [the lost bags] will erode our customer base.”
The union cites recent Bureau of Transportation Statistics reports that show Southwest lost 439,770 bags between January and September this year for a rate of 4.31 reports per 1,000 passengers. Southwest ranked 9th out of 12 carriers, with three regional airlines faring worse. American Airlines ranked 8th with 345,610 bags lost in the first nine months of the year for a rate of 3.76.
In the past few years, Southwest has started flying larger Boeing 737-800 aircraft that can carry more bags and the carrier’s network has gotten larger with its acquistion of AirTran Airways. Yet the company has not hired more ramp workers to maintain its quick turnaround times at airports, the picketers said.
And with the end of the Wright Amendment restrictions and the start of long-hual flying at Love Field, ramp workers are handling more bags that are heavier and must be being loaded onto larger planes.
“We’re going nonstop to all these great destinations now and making these record profits,” said Melinda Miles, a 10-year ramp worker for Southwest who lives in Fort Worth. “And yet for some reason they can’t give their people a contract for three years. I think that’s a little bit too long and a little bit ridiculous.”
The company has been in contract negotiations with the ground workers since July 2011 and the union members have not had a pay raise since 2010. The two sides filed for federal mediation in September 2012.
Southwest said it shares the union’s sense of urgency to reach an agreement.
“Reaching the right deal for both employees and the company remains a top priority; and it must be one that is fair to all employees, enables the company to grow, and protects our position as a low-cost leader in the industry,” the companny said in a statement on Tuesday.
With more flights out of Love Field, Southwest’s cargo operations have also increased but the staffing has not, said Shawn Clark, a freight agent at Southwest. For example, the freight crew used to handle 10 to 15 overnight cargo shipments and now it’s handling more than 30 every night. Clark said the company has only added one other employee to help in his department.
Southwest acknowledged that its “bags fly free” policy attracts more customers to the carrier particularly since most of its competitors charge passengers for checked bags. It said that as far back as the 1980s, Southwest carried an average of 80 bags per 100 passengers and that remains the same today.
“Staffing has increased at a higher rate than bags handled and today, the annual number of bags handled per Ramp Agent has declined,” the company said.
In a newspaper ad that ran Tuesday, the union asked the question, “Has Southwest lost its way?”
“Losing bags is bad — but eventually they find their way home,” says the ad, which appeared in USA Today. “Losing a successful company culture can be forever.”
Informational picketing was also held today at Southwest’s operations in Baltimore and Los Angeles.
Shannon Jones, a ramp worker who has worked at Love Field for seven years, said employees are not disgruntled, just disappointed.
“I love working here. We just want to see that the company’s founding principles are adhered to,” Jones said.
Keep reading for the full statement from Southwest.
Informational picketing is a common practice during negotiations and will not impact our operations. We have always supported, and will continue to support, our Employees’ right to express their opinions. We continue to share the Unions sense of urgency to secure a fair agreement. Reaching the right deal for both Employees and the Company remains a top priority; and it must be one that is fair to all Employees, enables the Company to grow, and protects our position as a low-cost leader in the industry.
Regarding bag delivery, the packing habits of Southwest passengers have not changed for decades. Going as far back as the 1980’s, Southwest carried an average of 80 bags per 100 passengers, and this fundamental fact remains true today. When our competitors added bag fees, the average number of bags carried on other airlines did decrease, which helped improve the DOT rankings of the competition.
Although passengers are carrying the same number of bags, our Bags Fly Free policy does attract more Customers to Southwest – improving the bottom line. That being said, staffing has increased at a higher rate than bags handled and today, the annual number of bags handled per Ramp Agent has declined.
We continue our focus on improving baggage delivery. In October, we proudly delivered 99.5 percent of our bags correctly, thanks to the performance of our outstanding ramp agents.