Pilots for United, Southwest, American threatened to strike

The fight between frustrated airline pilots and three major carriers – United Airlines, Southwest Airlines and American Airlines – is coming to Denver, as pilots push back against their companies with pickets and threats of strikes.

On Friday, United Airlines pilots plan to picket the United Flight Training Center at 7500 E. 35th Ave. in Denver, along with nine other cities. Denver International Airport is a major hub for United.

“Enough is enough,” said Capt. Garth Thompson, United Air Line Pilots Association master executive council chair.

The protests by pilots for three of the biggest US airlines came after years of flight complications spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, as cancellations and delays became the new normal for American travelers.

Airlines are trying to assuage travelers’ worries about potential roadblocks for their summer vacation plans.

“All United flights will operate as planned while our pilots exercise their right to distribute information and picket while off-duty,” the company said in a Thursday statement.

A spokesperson said it’s not a strike, as federal law bars airline workers from striking unless explicitly allowed by the National Mediation Board, the federal agency that oversees labor-management relations in the airline industry.

For United pilots, much of it comes down to stalled contract negotiations after four years, which include requests for changes to both work rules and their scheduling system. The airline counters that it’s offering 18% average pay increases to pilots, with 5% increases that started in December, and has already agreed on 79 improvements for the next contract.

But the unions aren’t so sure about the impact on travelers. Southwest Airlines Pilots Association President Casey Murray encouraged passengers to “make arrangements on other carriers so that their plans through the summer and fall are not disrupted.”

Capt. Dennis Tajer, spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association, pointed to the high traffic numbers for both United and Southwest at DIA.

“How much of the lift in Denver is happening on this uncertainty?” he said in a phone interview. His union represents American Airlines pilots.

The team at DIA declined to comment while discussions and negotiations between the airlines and unions are underway.

With over 80% of US air travel flown by four carriers – American, United, Southwest and Delta – “only one of them has formulated a plan with their pilots,” Tajer said. Delta pilots approved a new contract on March 1, which includes over $7 billion in cumulative increases over four years.

The pressure from pilots comes as the Biden administration is also making demands of airlines.

On Monday, President Joe Biden announced the launch of an updated version of the government’s airline customer service dashboard at FlightRights.gov. It not only provides travelers with more transparency into airlines’ compensation policies, but also includes airline guarantees for additional compensation, such as cash, miles or travel vouchers.

He noted that only two airlines offer the latter. His administration plans to propose a new rule later this year mandating that all US airlines compensate passengers with meals, hotels, taxis, ride shares, rebooking fees and more “whenever they are the ones to blame for the cancellation or delay.”

And that’s on top of the ticket refund. Travelers in Canada, the European Union and more already benefit from additional compensation, Biden said.

“American air travelers deserve better.”

Next Tuesday, Denverite Nolan Hahn plans to fly American with his wife for their honeymoon.

“While we have travel insurance, I don’t know if it covers strikes,” the 33-year-old said, adding that the couple worries about losing money and missing their trip.

As a union member, “I don’t blame the pilots at all,” Hahn said. “I just hope America meets their demands quickly.”


In particular, Southwest Airlines has taken a lot of heat over the past few months. Last year, holiday trips were mired by cancellations and delays, with the airline accounting for 90% of all flights canceled through DIA — also a major hub for Southwest — at one point.

Then, in April, the airline grounded its departures after reports of “intermittent technology issues,” with around 200 of their flights at DIA delayed.

On Thursday, Southwest pilots became the latest to vote to authorize a strike.

Through the union, 99% of pilots voted in favor of the action. The union pointed to “operational disasters” and sluggish negotiations after three years.