‘Next test is July 4’: Southwest CEO talks summer travel, pilot hiring

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The airline sector has had a difficult start to the summer, which was emphasized late last week when thousands of flights were canceled, diverted, or delayed.

Since last summer, when travel demand suddenly increased and airlines hurried to fulfill it, U.S. airlines have been caught off guard.

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Travelers are concerned about summer meltdowns due to the surge in summer demand and ongoing airline staffing issues. And possibly for good reason—last week’s delays and the controversy over Memorial Day weekend did little to boost trust.

In the midst of the turmoil, Southwest’s CEO Bob Jordan assumed control. His selection for the position was made public last summer.

Early in his transition into the position, which took effect in February, in October, Jordan worked with then-CEO Gary Kelly to manage Southwest’s own operational collapse that resulted in the cancellation of more than 1,800 flights (Jordan has been with Southwest in various roles since 1988, including most recently as executive vice president of corporate services).

The Points Guy (Image courtesy of The Points Guy, David Slotnick)

Jordan was the subject of an interview by TPG last week in Phoenix, when Southwest opened eight new gates. He acknowledged that the airline had made mistakes just this spring, misusing its scarce resources and neglecting to make sure it could meet demand. Jordan argued that Southwest is more equipped to handle the heat, though.

Jordan remarked, stressing that it “was too late for [last] summer.” “Last year, I’ll fully acknowledge that we scheduled — we got into the summer, we realized that we needed to hire,” she added.

He continued, “It hurt our customers.” “It hurt our pilots, it hurt our crews and our ground ops folks.”

According to Jordan, the hiring procedure has improved Southwest’s staffing status from the previous year.

“We’ve hired 14,000 people since then,” he said. “Of that, 20% are [flight] crews, 20% are operations on the ground, and 10% are in our call centers.”

Jordan opted not to disclose the percentage of pilots among the new personnel.

It’s The Points Guy. An onlooker takes a photo of a Southwest plane at one of the airline’s new gates in Phoenix. (Photo by David Slotnick/The Points Guy)

All American airlines, including Southwest, have struggled with the recruitment and retention of pilots.

The airline’s pilots have complained to management about erratic operations over the past year, citing logistical challenges during reroutings and negative effects on their personal life. The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), the pilots’ union, has been complaining louder and louder as it moves to demand a new contract. SWAPA pilots demonstrated outside Dallas Love Field on Tuesday (DAL).

A nationwide pilot shortage, which had been simmering for years, was accelerated by early retirements during the early days of the pandemic. Regional airlines and the smaller cities they serve have been most negatively impacted by the shortage, whereas mainline carriers have been adding pilots in large numbers. However, smaller, more affordable airlines like JetBlue and Spirit as well as others that specialize more on domestic travel, like Southwest, have also found it more difficult than usual to appropriately staff their pilot ranks.

For instance, Jordan noted that owing to the pilot shortage, Southwest is flying around 30 fewer aircraft per day than it would like. She added that the “constraint is primary pilots to fly all the aircraft.”

While this is going on, the union maintains that a new contract is necessary to sustainably increase the number of pilots.

According to Amy Robinson, a SWAPA spokesman, “[Southwest] needs an industry-leading [collective bargaining agreement] to recruit and retain pilots during the shortage — that implies career pay, disability/benefits, and quality of life gains.”

“[Southwest] needs SWAPA’s inputs that are currently in the [collective bargaining agreement] rewrite to stabilize the operation and make things more efficient.”

It’s The Points Guy. Southwest CEO Bob Jordan poses for a photo with an employee in Phoenix. (Photo by David Slotnick/The Points Guy)

Jordan highlighted that the airline, like the union, wants a new deal to be concluded despite the union’s complaints.

Jordan stated that contract discussions are challenging. “We want contracts for our employees, and we want certainty. There is no strategy to stall, go slowly, or do anything similar, I can assure you, starting with me.

We are all the business and all of our personnel, he continued.

In one of the nastier moments of the spat, SWAPA recently quoted an opportunistic tweet by the airline, accusing it of overscheduling flights that it did not have the staff to operate.

Selling more than 4,000 flights a day in June when you only had crew for 3,800 is not an option either. But @southwestair, you do you. https://t.co/yhDxBlylfm — Southwest Airlines Pilots Association on June 15, 2022 (@swapapilots)

Jordan objected, however, and argued that while an overambitious schedule last year may have inhibited the airline’s ability to recover from weather delays, the airline had pared this summer’s schedule back enough to add a comfortable buffer.

The second quarter timetable was cut by five or six points from what was initially released in April, he said, and is now 7 percent behind 2019. We have more room to respond to trend changes, such as higher sick time, that we have observed.

Since the first Omicron wave started in December, airlines have experienced higher rates of sick call-outs, which have been connected to both ongoing COVID outbreaks and employee fatigue brought on by the pandemic. According to Jordan, Southwest typically receives 3 to 4 percent more illness calls than the airline did in past years.

Jordan cited the airline’s performance over Memorial Day Weekend as proof that it is better prepared to handle disruptions.

According to data from FlightAware, Southwest cancelled 123 out of 21,408 scheduled flights during the holiday travel period from Thursday, May 26, to Tuesday, May 31, representing 1% of the schedule, and delayed 4,134 flights, or 19% of the schedule. The airline had its worst day ever, cancelling 86 (2%) flights and delaying 1,118. (30 percent ).

For comparison, American canceled 289 mainline flights (2%) and delayed 3,658 (21%) during the same period; United canceled 186 (1%) and delayed 3,216 (24%); Delta canceled 875 (5%) and delayed 3,126 (19%).

Regional airline flights performed somewhat worse, according to FlightAware, and are not included in those statistics.

Jordan considers it a success that cancellations were largely under control.

Despite some delays, he claimed, “We actually had extremely good operational performance.” We took off a little later, but our A30 — on-time within 30 minutes — was actually very impressive.

At a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Phoenix, The Points Guy Southwest CEO Bob Jordan (third from left) is pictured. (Photo by David Slotnick/The Points Guy)

The cancel rate was half as high in May, June, and on Memorial Day as compared to March and April, he continued. Air traffic control problems in the Florida region on the weekend of June 10–12, which have historically hampered Southwest, were also able to maintain the airline’s cancellation rate under 2 percent, according to Jordan.

As a result of the delays, Jordan explained, “We’re running the airline a little later, but our A30 is extremely good, and we’re getting you there.” “Unlike what was happening in the summer of 2021, we have a fairly high completion rate.”

Jordan added that the airline made improvements to the team in charge of scheduling the crew in order to better manage resources during erratic operations. Thousands of flights were canceled in October due to thunderstorms and air traffic control problems in Florida, and it took the airline more than three days to redeploy pilots and flight attendants as a result.

The actual test of whether all of this will be sufficient, however, is about to take place, according to Jordan.

The Fourth of July weekend will be the next test, he said. That will put everyone to the test.

We feel great, but I believe that will be our next challenge as a team, he continued.

David Slotnick/The Points Guy took the featured image.

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