Dallas-based Southwest Airlines has hired 10,000 employees since January, bringing it back to pre-COVID-19 staffing levels faster than the other major carriers.
Southwest had 62,040 employees in May 2022, slightly more than the number of workers the company had during the same month in 2019, according to government airline employment figures. Southwest still remains 400 workers below the peak workforce total it hit in March 2020, the same month a pandemic was declared and airlines stopped hiring workers because air travel demand was faltering.
At the pandemic’s peak, Southwest had trimmed nearly 8,000 workers from its payrolls through a series of buyouts, early retirements, attrition and halts on hiring. The US airline industry as a whole shed more than 80,000 jobs between February and October of 2020. And while those numbers have rebounded above pre-pandemic numbers, most of the growth has been at shipping firms such as FedEx and ultra-low-cost carriers like Spirit.
Most major airlines have cited hiring and workforce troubles heading into this summer of unanticipated strong consumer demand for flying. Several, including Southwest Airlines and Delta, had hoped to get back to the flying levels from 2019. But staffing issues and an industrywide shortage of pilots forced carriers to severely cut back summer schedules.
“Staffing is a clear constraint for revenue growth at airlines,” said Third Bridge senior sector analyst Christopher Raite. “Retention remains a problem, and airlines are spending more on their biggest costs, which is people.”
Southwest and other airlines face another major problem as they try to rebound from the pandemic, analysts say. Even though airline job numbers are close to what they were in 2019, delay and cancellation rates are higher, even with 10% to 20% fewer flights.
Southwest has 2,400 fewer flights scheduled for this summer than it did in 2019, while the four major US carriers have about 316,000 fewer flights than three years ago, according to flight-tracking service Diio by Cirium. That doesn’t even include regional carriers, which have been hardest hit by the shortage of pilots.
Southwest’s new CEO Bob Jordan has targeted hiring as top priority since officially taking the job over in February, pushing for new workers in jobs from customer service agents who take phone calls to pilots who fly planes. But he’s also cited the strong competition for employees from other labor-desperate industries.
“Our recent hiring milestones represent incredible progress with aligning staffing to support our flight schedule, customers and employees,” Southwest Airlines vice president of people Elizabeth Bryant said in a statement. “We’re proud of the 10,000 new Southwest employees that we’ve welcomed since January, and hiring and training will remain a focus throughout 2022.”
Fort Worth-based American Airlines is about 4,600 employees below May 2019 levels, although the company cut nearly 5,000 management and support staff workers in 2020 with plans to make those reductions permanent. American has been more successful in bringing back employees at its regional carriers, which have fewer employees but have still struggled with the pilot shortage across the industry.
Chicago-based United Airlines has 5,800 fewer employees than the 90,5000 workers it had in the same month from 2019 and Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines has 89,200 workers, about 1,200 workers less than three years ago.
“The chief issue we’re working through is not hiring but a training and experience bubble,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian said Wednesday. “Coupling this with the lingering effects of COVID, and we’ve seen a reduction in crew availability and higher overtime.”
Even with 1,200 fewer employees than in 2019 and buyouts and early retirements that reduced salaries, Delta’s salary and wage costs for the second quarter were still 4% higher than during the same stretch of 2019.
American Airlines has also cited hiccups in training, including a shortage of check airmen to provide simulator training to new and experienced pilots. There is also a lack of captains at regional airlines that is creating a bottleneck in training junior pilots.
Low-cost carriers such as JetBlue and Alaska reached pre-pandemic levels months ago, along with budget carriers Spirit, Allegiant and Frontier.
But even though masking mandates have dropped along with other COVID-19 restrictions, air carriers are still reeling from the effects of COVID-19, said CFRA analyst Colin Scarola.
“There is a lag between when you get people in the door and in the door and working gates or doing maintenance, not to mention how long it takes them to be fully trained to do their jobs,” Scarola. “But the biggest issue is COVID absenteeism. A lot of people think we are out of COVID or out of the pandemic, but people won’t work through an illness like they did before the pandemic, nor should they. “
Even with a nationwide unemployment rate of 3.6%, the labor participation rate is still about 1% lower than it was before the pandemic, according to the US Federal Reserve in St. Louis. The labor market could remain tight for a while, but it will be softer than it has been in recent months, he said.
“You hear the whole adage that the best cure for high prices is high prices,” Scarola said. “With so much inflation, that’s drawing people back to work.”