Southwest Is Attracting Pilots, But Not For Long

Southwest Airlines executives told Bloomberg that they’ve seen an increase in pilots who apply to the airline.

Photo of Southwest plane taking off
Photo by Sven Piper via Unsplash

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Are pilots using Southwest Airlines to, you know, land a new job?

Southwest executives told Bloomberg that they’ve seen an increase in pilots who apply to the airline, stay around a year, then leverage that experience to get a job at a bigger carrier that pays better. 

Jump Jet Jobs

In most industries, job-hopping is a pretty well-worn path, but for pilots the usual route to a major carrier is via smaller, regional airlines. Major carriers like Delta and United have relationships with regional airlines, so they have a steady pipeline of pilots for future hires. However, if that pipeline is too slow and steady it can create a career bottleneck for individual pilots, and Bloomberg noted that major carriers also poaching pilots from delivery airlines like FedEx with juicy six-figure bonuses has added to a sense of impatience. 

Pilots deplaning for greener pastures is a more sensitive issue for airlines, too, as the air travel industry has been rife with labor shortages following the pandemic. Southwest, which reached a tentative deal on Wednesday with its pilots’ union to improve pay, is clearly not used to being a career stepping stone:

  • Southwest COO Andrew Watterson told Bloomberg that regional pilots are using the company as a “premeditated way station,” and referred to the practice as “resume-washing.” Another post-pandemic piece of workplace vocabulary (see: quiet-quitting, loud-quitting, etc.) to throw on the fire.
  • CEO Bob Jordan told Bloomberg that the company was seeing higher-than-usual attrition. Watterson seems to be taking a fatalistic approach, saying it’s “literally impossible” to stop pilots from doing it.

Air Traffic Control Jam: While airlines reckon with fast-adapting pilots, airports will need to be creative when it comes to hiring air traffic controllers. An analysis by The Wall Street Journal of Federal Aviation Administration staffing data found that the vast majority of air traffic control towers are lacking in staff. Combine that with the fact that aircraft at major airlines are turning out to contain fake engine parts, and you’re heading for a very turbulent 2024.