Pilots for Southwest Airlines turned down a one-year contract extension Friday so they can begin negotiating a new labor deal next month.
Of the group's nearly 5,000 pilots, 71 percent cast a vote, and of those, 81 percent said no to the extension.
Subsequently, the union sent management a letter asking to kick off talks in about 30 days.
"If they want to move forward, that's what we'll do," said Beth Harbin, a spokeswoman for the carrier.
In light of rising jet-fuel prices and other uncertainties throughout the airline business, Harbin said, Southwest had suggested "some breathing room so that we can start our talks when the industry is a little more certain."
But the union declined because it has been operating under a contract that was negotiated in 1994 and extended in 2002.
"For us, formal negotiations is a periodic opportunity to adjust work rules and compensation for our pilots while, at the same time, ensuring the continued growth, success and profitability of our company," Ike Eichelkraut, the union's president, said in a statement.
Under the federal Railway Labor Act, which governs airline labor relations, airline contracts don't expire. Instead, they become "amendable" after a certain date. The pilots' contract becomes amendable Aug. 31.
Henry Harteveldt, an analyst at San Francisco-based Forrester Research, said the result of Friday's vote wasn't a surprise.
"Pilots are smart people," he said. "I suspect that the negotiations are being opened not out of a sense of malice, but to explore every opportunity available to them."
He added that the pilots may not have much room to ask for higher salaries. They may do better to get richer benefits and stricter work rules.
"I think the challenge is how do these pilots get paid what they think they're worth at a time when the network airlines are becoming increasingly effective," he said. "There's not that much room for the pilots."
Southwest is widely known for having unusually good relations with its unions, even though the airline and its flight attendants sparred over a new contract two years ago.
Most other carriers, including American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, have had constant battles with their unions.
Although it is unclear how long the Southwest pilots negotiations will take, the Star-Telegram reported last month that the carrier's contract negotiations take an average of nine months, compared with 16 months industrywide.
The pilots could be looking to capitalize on Southwest's success over the past few years, when almost everyone else in the industry has filed for bankruptcy, Harteveldt said.
The pilots' contract talks are the first of several that the airline is gearing up for over the next few years. Contracts for flight attendants, ramp workers, mechanics, stock clerks and customer-service employees will end in 2008.
Union leaders and Southwest management tend to agree more than disagree, Harteveldt said.
But that won't stop the pilots from trying to get more and the airline from trying to hold down costs.
"This is where the cozy culture gets fractured," he said.
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