Southwest pilots feeling blue about the new black.

June 27, 2017

When Southwest Airlines recently rolled out its new uniforms its pilots were not amused. The shoulder epaulets “made us look like Captain Crunch,” says Jon Weaks, president of SWAPA—the Southwest Airlines Pilots Union.  Captain Crunch is a U.S. cartoon character on the front of boxes of sweetened breakfast cereal.

The pilot uniforms were just part of the new garb for the company’s 42,000 uniformed employees. Beginning back in 2014, Southwest put together a 43-member Employee Design Team to help the airline choose work clothes. Pilots weren’t part of the selection team.

“Our pilots have a separate uniform program and vendor,” says Southwest spokeswoman Melissa Ford. “Unfortunately many of the new epaulets were sized incorrectly.”

The airline is working with the vendor to correct the issue.

All well and good? Not quite. The pilots are “very dissatisfied” with their new uniforms, says Weaks.

“Our CBA (collective bargaining agreement) with the airline says we should be consulted on uniform changes,” says Weaks. “That was never done.”

The pilot’s union chief says the flight operations department was never involved in the uniform selection process until they were told: “‘This is what [the uniforms] are going to be.’…There was no need at all for the pilots to change uniforms. None at all.”

If epaulets are the target of the pilots’ ire, so too is their uniform’s new color.

“If you’ll look at the way Southwest has tried to change re-brand their logos and everything else about themselves it’s white letters on blue,” says the union president. “We wear navy blue uniforms. Now they’re making us go to black. Our airplanes aren’t black. Our seats aren’t black. They’re blue. Our logo isn’t black. It’s blue. This was a huge mistake on the company’s part.”

And this is not the only mistake of late,  maintains Weaks.

The airline’s rollout in recent years of slimmer, less weighty ‘Evolve’ seating met with considerable criticism. Southwest bought new seats to replace them, seats that are more comfortable. Southwest’s much-promoted Internet link experienced problems—not when it comes to watching TV but in connecting to the Internet per se. The problem has been fixed.

If there’s a common thread weaving uniform, seat and Internet issues together it’s collaboration.

Former Southwest CEO and now chairman emeritus chief Herb Kelleher personified the trait. He no longer runs the Dallas-based airline.

 Jon Weaks says the Internet, seat and uniform decisions “were made by trying to do things cheaper.”

The service-intensive, passenger-first thread holding Southwest together is under pressure but it’s not unraveling.

Tangible evidence that the Southwest spirit is still woven into the fabric of this carrier was there for all to see on a recent packed- to-the-gills flight from Birmingham to Dallas.

A Southwest captain “deadheading” (sitting in the passenger cabin) unhesitatingly helped flight attendants pass out snacks. He had a smile on his face.

Nobody seemed to notice the color of his uniform.