A union representing thousands of Southwest Airlines ground crew workers say that a number of their members were forced to complete shifts of up to 18 hours in freezing temperatures during last week’s winter storm.
Transport Workers Union of America Local 555 president Randy Barnes said in a release on Wednesday that some of those members experienced frostbite during their abnormally long shifts.
“In severe weather it’s unreasonable for workers to stay outside for extended periods,” Mr Barnes wrote. “People need to be able to cycle in and out of the cold. The airline needs to do more to protect its ground crews.”
The allegations that Southwest endangered its workers’ safety are among the many issues facing the embattled airline, which has cancelled thousands of flights and left customers stranded in airports across the country since a major winter storm complicated air travel starting in the days before Christmas.
The storm shut down flights on a number of different airlines, but no airline has been impacted as significantly or for as many days as Southwest. The airline on Wednesday cancelled some 2,500 flights, whlie the airline with the second-highest number of cancellations, SkyWest, cancelled just 77.
Industry experts have said that poor planning and a lack of investment in its flight infrastructure have sunk Southwest into a crisis when other airlines experienced just a blip in their service provision.
Workers at the airline were expected to pick up the slack. Business Insider reported that, in Denver, Southwest declared a “state of operational emergency” and informed ramp managers that they would have to work overtime or risk termination. Workers would not be allowed to call in sick, but would have to provide a note from a doctor that they’d seen in-person — despite the fact that temperatures in Denver were about to hit -24 degrees Fahrenheit.
Workers are required contractually to comply with the requirements laid out in the “state of operational emergency” at the airline.
Southwest’s flight cancellations over the last week have drawn scrutiny from secretary of transportation Pete Buttigieg, who called the disruptions “unacceptable”.
“We’ve never seen a situation, at least not on my watch, with this volume of disruptions, so this is going to take an extraordinary level of effort by Southwest,” Mr Buttigieg said in an interview with ABC News earlier this week. “And we will mount an extraordinary effort to make sure that they’re meeting their obligations.”
But Mr Buttigieg himself is facing heavy criticism from progressives over his failure to address issues in the airline industry despite numerous issues earlier this year. Senator Bernie Sanders asked Mr Buttigieg to force airlines to refund travellers for cancelled and significantly delayed flights and levy fines on the airlines for long delays and poor scheduling practices in June, but the Transportation Department has not taken those steps.