Dallas-based Southwest Airlines is planning to hire 8,000 more employees in 2023 after hitting record staffing levels this year.
Southwest Airlines hit 65,000 employees in September — 2,500 more workers than it had in February 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and forced massive cutbacks across the travel industry.
Now the carrier is looking to continue that hiring into next year, including hopes of adding as many as 2,250 pilots, CEO Bob Jordan said Wednesday.
And that hiring rate could continue, even though firms are announcing layoffs amid recession concerns.
“If you look at our growth plans, we’re going to look up in five years, and not only will we continue to be the largest domestic carrier, we will have roughly 6,000 flights a day, we’ll have 1,000 aircraft and we’ll be just shy of 100,000 employees,” Jordan said.
Jordan said he has seen no indication of a recession from airline customers.
Southwest has hired 15,700 employees so far in 2022 as the demand for travel has increased and the company has seen two straight quarters of profitability. Accounting for attrition, the company has added about 10,000 workers this year and plans to get up to 11,000 by the end of 2022.
Southwest reduced its headcount by about 7,800 workers between March 2020 and July 2021 through a series of voluntary retirement and leave-of-absence programs as passenger traffic dropped during the worst of the pandemic for the travel industry.
That 15,700 new hires this year is a record for Southwest, besting the 11,000 employees the company hired when it acquired AirTran.
Southwest has recovered to prepandemic employment levels faster than any other major network airline, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Fort Worth-based American Airlines still has 5,400 fewer employees than it did in March 2020, although executives have indicated that some positions may never return. Chicago-based United has 3,300 fewer employees than in early 2020, while Delta is up about 1,500 workers.
All this has happened while Southwest is flying about 2% fewer available seat miles during the fourth quarter of this year than it did in 2019.
The biggest chunk of 2023 hiring is planned for pilots, where the company hopes to add about 2,250 new aviators after hiring 1,200 this year.
“The airline is constrained by pilots,” Jordan said. “We’re getting plenty of pilots, we’re filling all of our classes. The constraint is we only have so much training capacity.”
In fact, Jordan said Southwest effectively has 40 or 45 fewer aircraft in its fleet because it doesn’t have enough pilots to keep all of its planes flying full time. With sufficient pilots, Jordan said the airline could probably do between 6% and 8% more flying.
Southwest is adding more flight simulators at its Dallas headquarters campus in an expansion to its LEAD building where pilot training takes place. By January, the company should be able to bring six new 737 Max simulators online for a total of 26.
Being short-staffed has been a drain on the company, Jordan said. Unions have rebelled against mandatory overtime policies and long shifts, making work conditions a major point in contract negotiations. Pilots and flight attendants have complained about flight delays and cancellations that have resulted in trips being changed and extended.
“You look them in the eyes, and you can see when somebody is tired,” Jordan said. “They’ve been rerouted, their shifts have been extended, they’ve lost multiple weekends in a row they had intended to be with their families. Short staffing wasn’t just hurting the operational performance for our customers. It was hurting our people.”
In addition to the 1,200 extra pilots brought on this year, Southwest has hired 3,500 flight attendants and 8,000 ground operations employees, including baggage handlers and ramp agents.