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Tag: Southwest

Regional pilot bonuses

If there was ever any doubt about the need for pilots, or the need to try and retain pilots, those doubts have been squarely put to rest.

In August, Piedmont, PSA, and Envoy, all of whom fly under the American Airlines banner, announced significant retention bonuses. All captains are to receive $30,000 immediately, first officers will receive $30,000 when they upgrade, all pilots who stick around for the flow to American will receive $70,000, and there will also be $50,000 biannual bonuses available, with the details to be announced.

This is a blatant admission that the pipeline of pilots is drying up. It might also be an admission of sorts by American Airlines that pilots are not sticking around to get the promised flow to the American mainline. While I don’t have the details about how this program will work, or what the catches are, this indicates that the adage that “money talks” is going to be put to a test.

For example, how long will an upgrading FO have to stay to receive and keep the $30,000 bonus? What if that FO decides to bid back to the right seat for personal reasons? What is the structure of the biannual bonus? And, perhaps most important to so many of the pilots at the three airlines: how long do they have to realistically wait to get a shot at American? If the wait is too long, the problem is not going to be solved, as those pilots who are experienced and marketable will apply to Delta, United, Southwest, et al. If I am in management at American Airlines Group, I would be trying to figure out what to say to get them to stay.

It remains to be seen whether Delta and/or United will feel compelled to do something similar. Make no mistake that while the pilots in question are flying RJs, these bonuses are approved and maybe even initiated by management, since they pay the bills. It is clear that they see a shortage on the horizon.

I recently had a pilot from American on one of my flights, and while this wasn’t yet public knowledge, the overall need for pilots is, and we were discussing the state of the industry going forward. Every major airline will tell you that they all have the same 4,000 to 5,000 who are viable candidates in their pool of applicants. What makes this such a challenge is that, for the first time ever, multiple carriers are trying to hire at least 1,000 pilots a year. Delta, United, Southwest all would love to train more than that, and JetBlue is not far behind. UPS, FedEx and the Amazon contractors (Southern and Atlas) all need experienced pilots. While the pay at Southern and Atlas is still below where it should be, there is reason for optimism that the pilots are on the verge of a new contract that will dramatically increase compensation.

It doesn’t take much to see that four airlines hiring 1,000 pilots each will quickly deplete the current pool of available talent. It’s important to realize that these aren’t just pie-in-the-sky numbers either. While the pandemic is not over, travel demand has rebounded, and people are ready to move. Airlines responded to the downturn by offering early retirement packages that helped avoid furloughs. Retirements are not going to slow down, and every carrier is ordering airplanes that will result in a net growth of their fleets. They wouldn’t be doing this if they didn’t have confidence that the business would be there. In fact, in 2022, United will be taking a new airplane every three days. It’s been decades since the majors have seen that kind of movement.

This is going to create an incredible series of opportunities, but it will also put great strains on each company’s training centers. There will be positions open as instructors, evaluators, course content creators, and more. Recruiters will also be in demand. New and more airplanes will also open up opportunities for mechanics, which is another area of great staffing concern. But for us as pilots, this represents an opportunity to try as many different types of flying as you might care to experience. Ultra long haul, cargo, wide body, narrow body, charters, Boeing versus Airbus…it is all on the table. Some pilots will bid aggressively and fly every plane in the fleet, and others will find a niche and settle in for the long haul in one seat or one fleet. You certainly won’t starve.

I am curious to see the gotchas of the American Airlines Group deal with its subsidiaries, but I do think it is indicative of the state of an industry that needs to work hard to make learning to fly more accessible, more affordable, and more attractive. Let’s hope that this is just the beginning!—Chip Wright

The hiring boom is back

The pandemic may not be over, but it’s clear that people are no longer going to be as willing to lock themselves at home anymore. They want to get out, and they want to travel.

This summer has seen a major boomerang in travel demand that has strained all segments of the travel industry. In some places, getting a rental car will cost upwards of $800 per day for the cheapest car. In many places, restaurants are still struggling to reopen. And at airports, the airlines are bursting at the seams as they have gone from the extreme of parking airplanes wherever they could find a runway to land them, to suddenly scrambling for the most important of all assets: employees.

Virtually every airline did something to reduce their payrolls, and the pilot ranks were no exception. Some, however, may have gone too far. The early retirement offers and long-term leaves of absences that so many took left gaping holes in the staffing models of several carriers. It’s one thing at an company like Southwest or Spirit, where the fleet consists of one model and training can be spooled up pretty quickly, but it’s an entirely different animal at an airline like Delta or American, which fly multiple fleets, and the training has to be done in some kind of a logical sequence in order to properly rebalance the staffing numbers. The same holds true for the regionals.

Most of the domestic flying has returned, and if it isn’t back in full, most cities have had at least some of their service restored. Airplanes are full and ticket prices are increasing, both of which are good. But the impending pilot shortage that was kicking in only months ago is now very much back front and center. United Airlines has recently announced some massive aircraft orders, and while some of them will be replacement aircraft, much of it will be growth, which will necessitate more pilots. In a recently closed bid, United began to kick-start its recovery, and the airline is now hiring almost 50 pilots a week indefinitely. The bid that just closed will trigger at least a thousand training events, hundreds of which will go to pilots not yet on the property. Similar events will happen throughout the industry.

The majors all share one concern: They have a pool of what they consider to be qualified, acceptable pilots that sits at around 5,000 applicants, but that pool is pretty much the same at each carrier, since most pilots apply to multiple airlines. To use United’s projected hiring needs, that pool would be gone in two years. Obviously, some of it will be refilled with fresh applicants as they become competitive and apply, but it’s still a harsh reality that needs to be dealt with in some form.

For job applicants, this is all great news. The world has been through an event unlike anything we have ever seen, and while the work still must continue, the determination to take control of our own lives again is beginning to generate hiring cycles, which will create more economic activity and jobs. If a career as a pilot of any kind is your dream, there is no better time than the present. —Chip Wright

People per plane

I will be the first to admit that pilots can be pretty myopic and focus only on their own issues and causes, especially when it comes to pay and/or job advancement or security. While a few of these grumblings may be misplaced, most aren’t. A few, sometimes, just aren’t understood or realized.

I’ll give you an example. It’s a common refrain that airlines plan on X number of pilots and flight attendants—often lumped together as crews—per airframe on the property. On the low end it might be eight to nine pilots, and on the high end it might be an average of 11; the most common is 10 pilots/5 crews, and wide-body international birds might need as many as 14. But that isn’t the end of it by any stretch.

Each airplane must support the livelihoods of others whose livelihood is to support the airplane. For instance, the airline must carry a certain number of mechanics, dispatchers, fuelers, cleaners, accountants, advertising folks, et cetera, to get the job done. The more airplanes in the fleet, the more people who are needed. At the height of the bloated payrolls in the early 2000s, many airlines averaged more than 100 employees per ship. Now, that number is much lower.

Some of this is a result of contracting out certain services (which could be the topic of a number of books, let alone this blog), and some of it is a result of more efficiency, especially with regard to computing power. The most obvious example of this is the severe reductions in the number of ticket agents, thanks to the ability to check in at home or at an airport kiosk. The days of standing in a long line every time you go to the airport are over.

When I got hired at Comair, I went on a tour of the company offices. One thing that stood out as a shock to me was the bags and bags of torn ticket stubs that had to be reconciled by hand. Same with the monthly pilot payroll summary sheets. No more. Those items are totally automated, and many of those jobs were eliminated.

Likewise, we and every other airline had a staff of people whose job was to sift through lost bags and find the owners. Today, that is much easier and faster, and it requires fewer people because of the new industrywide tear-proof bag tags that are bar-coded. A scan gun can save tons of time and money when a bag is lost. If the bag tag does get separated, then it becomes much more work-intensive. Thank goodness, that’s rare.

But some things never change. Pilots still fly the airplanes, and the FARs do much to dictate the staffing of crews. Likewise with dispatchers, who are also required, and whose work days are legally limited. One dispatcher can handle a fair number of flights, so adding one airplane may or may not lead to new jobs in that department. But at some point, you will need to spread the workload. Crew schedulers, fuelers, and gate agents—actual, at-the-gate agents, not the ticket counter—are still needed as well, and are only added when the number of airplanes added to the fleet (or flights are added to the schedule) forces the workforce to be grown. Some of those skilled employees are more expensive than the non-skilled workers: mechanics, pilots, avionics techs, even the mechanics for the airport ground equipment.

The new industry average for employees per plane is now closer to 85-90. A friend at Southwest tells me that theirs is 62. Keep all this in mind when you see your ticket price. It covers a lot: employees beyond the crew; spare parts; fuel; lease payments. If you see 10 people at the airport who directly affect your flight, there are dozens more you don’t see whom you can’t travel without, just like you don’t see the new tires and fuel pumps that were put on the airplane late at night, or the facilities to store all of those parts.

I’m not always a fan of workforce efficiency improvements and the lost jobs that come with them, but it is the basis of capitalism, and all of us have a certain level of price sensitivity. After all, even I buy tickets on occasion, and I will be the first to admit that price is the most important factor. And yes, I will check in at home whenever I can.—By Chip Wright