Southwest Airlines Co. pilots called for the replacement of Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly, saying a “misguided focus on cost control” meant the company failed to invest in critical technology that could have prevented canceled flights and stranded passengers.
“We believe that a change is needed for the best interests of Southwest Airlines and the loyal customers we serve,” Jon Weaks, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots’ Association, said in a statement Monday, which also called for Chief Operating Officer Mike Van de Ven to step down. “We encourage, effective immediately, their replacement in order to secure a more stable, sustainable and profitable future.”
Senior executives have used record revenue to buy back “excessive shares of stock” rather than invest in the airline and its employees, according to a resolution by the union’s board. The union, which is in contract talks with the Dallas-based carrier, cited technical breakdowns during the busy summer and holiday travel seasons over the past several years, including a computer-system outage last month.
Executives also boosted maintenance costs and hurt flight reliability by operating the airline’s oldest planes too long, said the union, which represents more than 8,000 pilots. Southwest in June said it would speed up the retirement of its so-called 737 Classic fleet to late next year.
Southwest last month struggled to recover after an old router and its backup system failed, crashing the carrier’s computer systems. While those computers were restored about 12 hours later, flights continued to be canceled or delayed over several days as the carrier attempted to get crews and planes in the right locations.
The airline is “studying every single angle” to determine why the failure occurred, Kelly told employees in a voice message after the outage. A new domestic reservation system will be in place next year, and other aging technology will be replaced “over the next three to five years,” he said on a July 21 conference call.
In October, technological problems forced Southwest to process travelers manually and delayed more than 450 flights across the U.S. The issue affected the airline’s website, mobile application, reservations centers and airports.
Pilots blamed cost-control efforts for staffing problems during a Chicago winter storm in 2014 that left planes waiting for gates at Midway Airport. Southwest later agreed to pay a $1.6 million U.S. fine for leaving passengers on 16 planes for more than three hours after landing. Malfunctions of the airline’s crew scheduling system, a staff shortage and severe weather contributed to the delay, federal regulators said.