Southwest Airlines cuts 20,000 summer flights and increases hiring to prepare travelers
Dallas-based Southwest Airlines is cutting nearly 20,000 flights from its summer flight schedule and ramping up efforts to hire new employees as it prepares for a busier summer travel season.
Along with delays in aircraft orders, Southwest, like other airlines and businesses in the economy, is trying to adapt on the fly to supply chain and labor shortages that are holding back recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, although consumer spending remains strong.
Southwest, which announced another quarter of pandemic-era losses on Thursday, cut about 20,000 flights between June and Labor Day and pushed plans to hire another 2,000 workers, bringing the goal to 10 000 net new workers for the year.
“Of course, if we have to cut more capacity, we certainly can,” Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan said Thursday. “But I’m cautiously optimistic that we can achieve a good balance of workforce and manage our schedules for the rest of the year.”
Airline ticket prices are rising and it will be increasingly difficult to find cheap flights
Southwest outlined its summer plans by reporting $278 million in first-quarter losses and $4.7 billion in revenue, down 8.8% from the same quarter in 2019. The company said that ‘it expects to make a profit for the rest of 2022.
The staffing issues date back more than a year, when airlines were recalling employees from voluntary pandemic leave. The airline has been hiring aggressively across the company, but faces its biggest shortage of pilots and flight instructors, key positions to get planes into the air. When Southwest can recruit new workers, there are delays due to a shortage of people to train.
Delta Air Lines made similar statements earlier this month about restricted schedules and Fort Worth-based American Airlines also said it was hiring aggressively to ensure it had enough workers to carry its passengers reliably this summer.
Just a year ago, airlines feared that consumer demand for air travel would hamper the resumption of travel, but that is no longer the case. Several airlines, including Southwest, reported another major surge in travel interest in March as the omicron variant of the COVID-19 surge waned and consumers began planning summer trips.
At Southwest, its March 2022 sales were better than they were the same month two years ago, the first time this has happened since the pandemic began.
At the same time, passengers have started flying again much faster than expected, congesting planes and driving ticket prices to the highest levels since 2019. Travelers are even willing to buy tickets despite the price hike, which are up about 29% for Dallas area airports. compared to 2019.
“So far, we haven’t seen any indicators that demand has been dampened by this rate increase,” Jordan said.
That leaves Southwest with few options this summer if it wants to ensure planes land on time and aren’t canceled.
Some of the biggest schedule cuts are to vacation destinations in the Southwest, including about a quarter of flights from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Destin-Fort Walton Beach, Florida, according to the travel tracker. Diio by Cirium flight schedule.
In return, Southwest said it was adding more flights to business destinations to win back business travelers who have been the most reluctant to fly again.
At Dallas Love Field, home to Southwest’s headquarters, about 4% of flights are canceled from July through September, or nearly 1,000 in total. This includes cutting a daily flight from Love Field to Pittsburgh that was scheduled for July and August and reducing daily service to once a week to Charlotte, Memphis, Burlington, Vt., and Ontario, Calif. The Dallas to Pittsburgh route is set to return in September, following Labor Day weekend.
In doing so, Southwest is trying to avoid some of the issues that have challenged the carrier over the past year, including high cancellation periods that have been blamed on everything from bad weather and air traffic control to personnel and surges of COVID-19.
“The most important driver for airline costs is labor expenses, and this is an area where Southwest has struggled during the post-pandemic recovery,” said Peter McNally, analyst at Third Bridge. “As a result, capacity additions are reduced due to the inability to staff aircraft.”
Southwest chief operating officer Mike Van de Ven said schedule reductions and more hiring should make the airline more reliable this summer, while adjusting flight schedules to focus on shorter routes for airplanes. These shorter flights should help the company recover faster in the event of weather problems, he said.
The first problem to solve is that of hiring.
According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, there were about 2,200 fewer employees in Southwest in February than there were three years earlier. And this despite the hiring of 5,000 workers in 2021.
But the company doesn’t even get as much from the workers as it used to. More and more employees are calling in sick and others are on leave. Pilots are canceling more shifts due to fatigue and blaming erratic schedules for delays and cancellations, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association said.
Southwest, long considered one of the best companies in the country to work for with few perks outside of the travel industry, has turned to instant interviews and deals to land potential new hires before they accept another job. In February, Texas recorded the highest number of job openings ever – some 932,000.
“I think we’re going to have to keep working hard and adapting our recruiting,” Jordan said. “We all had to speed up the processes.”