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Could Pilot Strikes Ruin Your Summer Travel Plans?

A number of major airlines including United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and American Airlines, could be facing potential pilot strikes this summer.

How likely are these strikes to happen, and what happens if your flight is canceled because of one? Here’s what the pilot strikes could mean for travelers. 

What Airlines Could Be Impacted?

Pilot groups for several major airlines have indicated that strikes are on the table. Pilots at Canadian airline WestJet pilots issued a 72-hour pre-strike notice on May 15 and the carrier has already announced that it will be canceling flights due to the potential strike.

In the United States, pilots at both Southwest Airlines and American Airlines have voted to authorize strikes. Although United Airlines pilots haven’t officially voted on a strike, they have been picketing at airports to demand new contracts over the last few months. 

Why Are Pilots Considering Striking?

Pilots are seeking better pay, more vacation time, and a better work-life balance. In a statement issued by United pilots, the pilots called attention to the age of their contact with the airline, saying, “United Pilots are operating under a contract with quality-of-work-life rules that we have not updated for more than 10 years.”

Earlier this year, Delta pilots successfully negotiated for significant pay increases along with more vacation and better benefits. Pilots at other major airlines are hoping to see similar changes. 

“United pilots will always be there for our customers,” said Captain Garth Thompson, United Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) Master Executive Council chair. “Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about management, who seems to think that a last-minute cancelation of a United pilot’s scheduled day off, or abrupt trip reassignments that extend into planned days off is acceptable for a United pilot’s family.” 

In addition to raises and benefits, pilots at Southwest are looking to address operational issues that have caused major cancelations and delays over the last few years. “Our pilots are tired of apologizing to our passengers on behalf of a company that refuses to place its priorities on its internal and external customers,” said Southwest Airlines Pilots Association Casey Murray. 

What Happens if Your Flight Is Cancelled Due to a Pilot Strike?

Your rights are the same no matter if your flight was cancelled due to a pilot strike or bad weather. The airline should rebook you, free of charge. Unfortunately, if there is an ongoing pilot strike, finding a new flight to change to could be very difficult, as airlines will have a lot of stranded passengers to accommodate.

If you choose not to rebook and instead cancel your trip, you are entitled to receive a full cash refund (not a voucher). 

Many airlines also offer other benefits to stranded passengers, including hotel rooms and meals. Check what’s covered by your carrier at the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Airline Cancelation and Delay Dashboard

Will Travel Insurance Cover a Pilot Strike?

Most standard travel insurance policies will provide coverage for all prepaid and non-refundable trip expenses if a flight is significantly delayed or canceled due to a pilot strike. 

Steven Benna, Marketing Manager, Squaremouth, tells SmarterTravel “A strike can no longer be covered by travel insurance once it is considered a known event. However, the timing for when a strike is considered known can vary between plans.”

According to Benna, “Some providers consider a strike to be a known event once a formal announcement has been made. However, some providers consider it a known event as soon as the strike has been authorized.”

This means, depending on which policy you buy, a flight on Southwest Airlines or American Airlines might not be covered as their pilots have already voted to authorize strikes.

How Likely Is a Pilot Strike?

In the United States, airline workers must follow rules around striking laid out in the Railway Labor Act (RLA). Pilots won’t legally be able to strike unless federal mediators decide that negotiations between the pilots and the airlines are fruitless. Even then, the government could still block a strike from happening. 

It’s far more likely that the airlines will be able to reach an agreement with the pilots rather than resorting to strikes this summer—however, the possibility is not off the table.

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