Southwest CEO says airline is ready for summer travel, even as pilots protest

5d ago

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

It’s been a challenging start of summer for the airline industry, highlighted late last week when thousands of flights were canceled, diverted or delayed.

U.S. airlines have been caught back-footed since last summer, as travel demand came rushing back and airlines scrambled to meet the newly returned demand.

Want more airline-specific news? Sign up for TPG’s free new biweekly Aviation newsletter.

With summer demand surging and staffing shortages still affecting the airline industry, travelers are worried about summer meltdowns. And perhaps with good reason, following a Memorial Day weekend kerfuffle and then last week’s delays doing little to inspire confidence.

Bob Jordan took the reins as CEO of Southwest in the middle of the turbulence. His appointment to the role was announced last summer.

In October, early in his transition into the role — which became effective in February — Southwest experienced its own operational meltdown that left more than 1,800 flights canceled, which Jordan worked to manage along with then-CEO Gary Kelly (Jordan has been with Southwest in various roles since 1988, including most recently as executive vice president of corporate services).

(Photo by David Slotnick/The Points Guy)

TPG had the chance to interview Jordan last week in Phoenix, where Southwest cut the ribbon on eight new gates. He admitted that the airline has made missteps as recently as this spring, overcommitting limited resources and failing to ensure that the airline could keep up with demand. However, Jordan insisted that Southwest is better prepared to tackle the summer.

“Last year, I’ll fully admit that we scheduled — we got into the summer, we realized that we needed to hire,” Jordan said, noting that it “was too late for [last] summer.”

“It hurt our customers,” he added. “It hurt our pilots, it hurt our crews and our ground ops folks.”

The process of hiring, Jordan said, has put Southwest in a better staffing situation than last year.

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

Jordan declined to specify how many of the new hires are pilots.

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)

Pilot recruitment and retention have been a difficult issue for all U.S. airlines, including Southwest.

Pilots at the airline have expressed frustration over irregular operations during the past year with complaints of logistical hardships during reroutings and impacts on their personal lives. The pilot’s union, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), has been increasingly vocal with complaints as it moves to push for a new contract. On Tuesday, SWAPA pilots picketed outside Dallas Love Field (DAL).

A nationwide pilot shortage, which had been simmering for years, was accelerated by early retirements during the early days of the pandemic. The shortage has primarily affected regional airlines and the smaller cities they serve, with mainline carriers hiring pilots in droves. Even so, smaller and budget airlines like JetBlue and Spirit, and more domestic-focused airlines like Southwest have also had a harder time than normal adequately filling their pilot ranks.

For instance, Southwest is flying about 30 fewer airplanes each day than it would like due to the pilot shortage, Jordan said, noting that the “constraint is primary pilots to fly all the aircraft.”

The union, meanwhile, insists that a new contract is essential to sustainably boosting the pilot ranks.

“[Southwest] needs an industry-leading [collective bargaining agreement] to recruit and retain pilots during the shortage — that means career earnings, disability/benefits and quality of life gains,” Amy Robinson, a spokesperson for SWAPA, told TPG by email.

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

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

Despite the union’s gripes, Jordan emphasized that the airline, like the union, wants a new contract to be wrapped up.

“Contract negotiations are hard,” Jordan said. “We want certainty, we want contracts for our people. I can promise you from me on down, there’s no tactic to stall, to go slow, or anything like that.”

“We’re all the company and we’re all our people,” he added.

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.

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 schedule is 7% below 2019, and in April we reduced it from what was published by five or six points,” he said. “We’ve got more buffer to deal with trend changes we’ve seen, like higher sick time.”

Higher rates of sick call-outs have plagued airlines since the first Omicron wave began in December, linked to both continuing surges of COVID and pandemic-related burnout among workers. Jordan said that Southwest routinely sees 3% to 4% more sick call-outs than the airline has seen in previous years.

Jordan pointed to the airline’s performance during the Memorial Day Weekend travel period as evidence that the airline is in better shape to manage disruptions.

Over the holiday travel period, from Thursday, May 26, to Tuesday, May 31, Southwest canceled 123 out of 21,408 scheduled flights — 1% of the schedule — and delayed 4,134, or 19% of the schedule, according to data from FlightAware. On its worst individual day, the airline canceled 86 flights (2%) and delayed 1,118 (30%).

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%).

Those numbers do not include flights operated by regional airlines, which performed slightly worse, according to FlightAware.

The fact that cancellations were relatively contained is seen by Jordan as a win.

“We actually had really good operational performance,” he said, though he acknowledged some delays. “We flew a little bit later, but our A30 — on-time within 30 minutes — was actually really good.”

Southwest CEO Bob Jordan (third from left) at a ribbon-cutting event in Phoenix. (Photo by David Slotnick/The Points Guy)

“If you look at our cancel rate in May and June, and on Memorial Day, it was half of what it was in March and April,” he added. Jordan also noted that over the weekend of June 10-12, which saw air traffic control issues in the Florida region — something that has typically stymied Southwest — the airline was also able to keep its rate of cancellations under 2%.

“What’s happening [during disruptions] is we’re running the airline a little later, but our A30 is really good, and we’re getting you there,” Jordan said. “Our completion rate is really high, which is not what was happening in the summer of 2021.”

Jordan also argued that the airline invested in its crew scheduling department to help better manage resources during irregular operations. This was an effort to avoid the kind of episode last October where it took the airline more than three days to reposition pilots and flight attendants after thunderstorms and air traffic control issues in Florida forced the airline to cancel thousands of flights.

Even so, Jordan said, the real test of whether all of this will be enough is coming up soon.

“The next test, of course, is the Fourth of July weekend,” he said. “That’ll be a big test for everybody.”

“We feel really good, but I think that’s the next test for all of us,” he added.

Featured photo by David Slotnick/The Points Guy.

Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card

Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer ends 8/3/2022.

With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer ends 8/3/2022.
  • Earn up to 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 10,000 MQMs up to two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
  • Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
  • Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide including takeout and delivery in the U.S., and at U.S. supermarkets.
  • Earn 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $80 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
  • Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
  • Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck® after you apply through any Authorized Enrollment Provider. If approved for Global Entry, at no additional charge, you will receive access to TSA PreCheck.
  • Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • $250 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Regular APR
17.24%-26.24% Variable
Annual Fee
$250
Balance Transfer Fee
N/A
Recommended Credit
Excellent/Good
Terms and restrictions apply. See rates & fees.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.