Southwest Airlines, besieged on all sides by unhappy labor unions who have gone years without new contracts, has announced the retirement of Randy Babbitt, the low-fare behemoth's senior vice president of labor relations.

News of Babbitt's sudden exit after four years as Southwest CEO Gary Kelly's top labor guy came just hours before some 1,000 Southwest pilots converged this morning on Love Field in Dallas, Texas, for what is believed to be the single largest informational labor picket line in the history of Southwest.

Pilots were joined on the picket line by representatives from Southwest flight attendants and mechanics unions, who, like the pilots have all been in protracted, and so far fruitless negotiations on new contracts for years.

As Southwest Airlines Pilots' Association union members were gathering at Love Field, SWAPA president Jon Weaks said of the picket line and its reason for being: "We have 1,000 pilots here today to protest a protracted negotiation now approaching four-and-a-half years. The pilots of Southwest simply want to remain contractually on par with our fellow professional pilots at other companies. Management actions, however, continue to foster labor discord. We are truly saddened that our company has strayed so far from the people-focused roots that made it the success it is today."

As far as Babbitt's sudden departure is concerned, Weaks said "we are glad to see his departure. His presence was a hindrance to negotiation progress."

A SWAPA spokesman also indicated that progress was being made in mediated talks between Southwest management and pilots, but also noted that SWAPA does not consider the two sides to be close to an agreement at the moment.

Southwest, in its official press release on Babbitt's retirement, made no mention of Babbitt's and the company's efforts to secure new contracts with pilots, flight attendants and mechanics, but did note that he had a role in securing contracts with six other worker groups at Southwest. The retirement announcement included no comment from CEO Kelly, only a brief statement from Chief Operating Officer Mike Van de Ven saying "we are grateful for his (Babbitt's) many contributions."

Beyond the pilots, Southwest flight attendants also were happy to hear of Babbitt's retirement. After participating in today's picket line at Love Field, flight attendants union president Audrey Stone said in an interview about the Babbitt exit: "It's not been a secret that during Randy Babbitt's term labor relations at Southwest have declined."

Stone also noted that Babbitt had not been a presence at the bargaining table since flight attendants resumed contract negotiations earlier this month.

Mechanics at Southwest joined with other labor groups today that welcomed Babbitt's exit.

Noted Aaron Hansen, assistant national director of the union representing Southwest mechanics: "We are pleased to see Mr. Babbitt's retirement. Although we had hopes that his leadership and union background would help the company come to an agreeable contract with our group and to other labor groups on property, we were sadly disappointed. We continue to work diligently with Southwest Airlines to achieve a contract that reflects our members' contributions to the company's success and safety of the flying public, and hope that Mr. Babbitt's replacement will represent a change for the better and come to the table with a sincere desire to move forward."

As for life at Southwest after Babbitt, a Southwest corporate spokesman said today: "We have not announced any plans for an interim position or long-term replacement. Randy will work through a transition plan on his departure, and in the meantime, work will continue on the labor front with current vice president Mike Ryan and our labor relations team."

Southwest (NYSE: LUV) operates its largest hub at Chicago's Midway Airport, and thousands of the carrier's pilots, flight attendants and mechanics are based in Chicago.