The head of Southwest Airlines’ pilot union sees troubling cracks in the carrier’s operating metrics and has approved a plan to prepare the union in case Southwest responds by seeking to acquire another airline.

In a 16 March letter to members, Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) president Casey Murray blames Boeing’s delays in certificating the 737 Max 7 for leaving Southwest overly reliant on larger Max 8s, which he says have too many seats for many Southwest flights.

Southwest Airlines

Source: Pittsburgh International airport

Southwest is flying around more empty seats as a result, but has no little choice because it has long only operated 737s – factors that could prompt Southwest to seek a merger partner, says Murray’s letter.

“Last month, SWAPA made the decision to retain several law firms if Southwest attempts to acquire another carrier,” Murray writes. “To be clear, neither I nor anyone at SWAPA have any knowledge of an acquisition or merger in Southwest Airlines’ future. In fact, I hope a merger and/or acquisition never comes to pass.”

Southwest declines to comment.

The airline has been banking heavily on receiving new 737 Max 7s, the smallest variant of the Max family. The type, and earlier-generation 737-700s, are ideal for Southwest’s strategy of operating high-frequency flights with quick turnarounds.

But Boeing said in January that it needs to redesign the Max 7’s engine anti-ice system, pushing back certification – already long delayed – another year.

Southwest has since removed 737 Max 7s from its 2024 fleet plan and embarked on a cost-cutting initiative that includes slashing hiring. It now plans to pause pilot-hiring classes on 1 April and hire 60% fewer flight attendants this year than earlier planned. Southwest chief executive Bob Jordan also criticised Boeing, saying it “needs to become a better company”.

Murray says Southwest’s sole reliance on 737s brings “a level of risk” to the company, adding that recent events have left “many questioning if [the 737 Max 7] will ever be certified”.

The delays also forced Southwest to acquire more of the larger 737 Max 8s.

“We watched our [seat capacity] grow and load factors decline due to a supply/demand imbalance caused by flying too large an airplane in certain markets,” Murray says. “We may have now reached the point where we are no longer able to place the right-sized aircraft into the correct network segment.”

Such factors mean “business decisions must be re-evaluated”, which is why SWAPA decided to retain law firms.

“One of those firms would be an experienced labour firm tasked with protecting SWAPA pilots in a seniority list integration. The second – and possibly third – firm would handle the business and equity side of the transaction to ensure our pilots were invested in the capital of the new entity,” the letter says.