Flight Attendant Demands May Block Southwest's Push Toward Bigger Planes

Last Updated Aug 18, 2010 5:03 PM EDT

Southwest (LUV) made a curious announcement last week when it said it was looking at acquiring larger 737-800 aircraft for its operation. While the timing of the release is a bit strange, it appears that labor may be the cause of it. The decision to look at larger airplanes is no surprise considering its changing network, but the flight attendants may end up killing the opportunity with demands that are too rich.

With the exception of a handful of 727s in its early days, Southwest has exclusively flown the 737 throughout its life. The airline's single fleet model has been a blueprint for many low cost carriers that have tried to follow in its footsteps. The rationale is that fewer airplane types mean less complexity in the operation, and it has served the airline well.

But that doesn't mean it has always operated the same model. Southwest first flew the 737-200, the original strong-selling version of the airplane which had 122 seats. It later upgraded to the 137 seat 737-300 as the backbone of the fleet. The airline also ordered a few 737-500s in the original 122 seat configuration, but that was a niche order.

The 737-300 served as the bulk of the fleet for the airline until the NextGen 737s were introduced. The revised 737-700 airplane offered longer range, better performance, and updated systems, but it still held the same 137 seats. Southwest hadn't looked at bigger airplanes and didn't want smaller ones either. But now Southwest is talking about 175 seat 737-800s. What's changed?

Actually, quite a bit has changed. The original Southwest model was high frequency, low cost service to smaller, congestion-free airports. Sure, there were some exceptions from time to time, but the goal was the same. Running a high frequency operation is easy when there aren't slots or other issues with congestion. So the 137 seat airplane was a winner.

But over the last few years, the Southwest model has changed. Many of Southwest's newer airports are crowded. There's New York's LaGuardia, Boston, Philadelphia, and rumors of Washington's National airport are always hanging in the air. Those airports, particularly LaGuardia and National, are so tightly-squeezed for slots that high frequency just isn't possible. So what's the solution? Get a bigger airplane.

This can also help as Southwest looks to go internationally. There are additional complexities and restrictions on international flying that may make the 737-800 and its larger capacity a more profitable aircraft.

From a pilot perspective, the 737-800 will be virtually an identical flying experience to what's out there today; there'll just be another 38 seats in the back. This bigger airplane will allow Southwest to carry more passengers to and from airports where the high frequency model doesn't really work well, and the pilots have so far been quiet on this.

For flight attendants, there are some changes, so it's no surprise they've been vocal here. Federal regulations require 1 flight attendant for every 50 passengers. So while Southwest's previous aircraft could all easily operate with 3 flight attendants, the 737-800 will require a fourth.

And this is likely why Southwest is talking about this right now. The airline has set a deadline of Dec. 1 for determining whether or not to go ahead with an order to ensure delivery by early 2012. Almost instantaneously, the flight attendants came out with demands to reopen the contract if Southwest wants them to work these planes.

I find myself wondering if Southwest decided to take this public as a negotiation tactic. The reaction from the flight attendants seems ridiculous and won't play well in public. Yes, there are added complexities here in terms of scheduling the right number of flight attendants, but why should pay rates be revised?

The union says that it wants to "negotiate new rates of pay, rules, and working conditions." Sounds to me like its just an effort to take advantage of the opportunity when it may simply result in loss of potential jobs for the flight attendants if it doesn't go through.

What's the difference in working conditions? They should improve. Right now, the 737-700s have a ratio of 1 flight attendant per 45.67 passengers. The 737-800s would have 1 flight attendant per 43.75 passengers. So the workload is roughly the same but actually will go down a bit. Is there any reason flight attendants should get paid more for doing less work? No.

So it's now time to play this out in the public realm, it would appear. Southwest is not afraid to walk away from these things if labor doesn't cooperate. That's exactly what happened when Southwest refused to bid on Frontier in bankruptcy because the pilots hadn't agreed on a deal. So the flight attendants may very well shoot themselves in the foot here if they honestly are expecting to get new pay rates and altered working conditions.

The addition of the 737-800 makes sense for the network and only adds minor complexity, but it's not going to happen if the flight attendants decide to demand too much here. We'll know what happens by December 1.

Related: Photo via Flickr user randomduck
  • Brett Snyder