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The Low-Cost Carriers’ Pilot Attrition Problem

Despite record hiring at some low-cost airlines, many have turned into a leaky bucket as pilots leave for larger airlines after just a few months on the job.

A Southwest 737-800 takes off in Los Angeles. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

In the latest iteration of the pilot shortage saga, some U.S. low-cost carriers (LCCs) are facing additional headwinds. Most notable among them is Southwest, which – according to the company’s COO Andrew Watterson — is seeing an increase in pilots leaving for large airlines after just a few months on the job.

According to a Bloomberg report published on Wednesday, Watterson called this increasing phenomenon “resume washing.” Some pilots from regional airlines use the Dallas-based carrier as a stepping stone for a longer-term career path at American, Delta or United.

“So they use us as a premeditated way station. They come to Southwest, get hired, trained, spend six months and then they flip their resume and apply somewhere else,” says Watterson.

As the fourth largest U.S. airline, Southwest operates a fleet of only the Boeing 737 series aircraft, which leaves limited options for pilots looking to upgrade to higher-paying widebody positions. The top of the pay scale for a Southwest 737 captain is $245 per flight, while a Delta A350 captain can reach up to $354 on an hourly basis per Airline Pilot Careers.

Southwest’s pilot union – SWAPA – finalized a tentative agreement (TA) on Wednesday, which is set to be voted on by pilots in the coming days. If approved, the new contract is set to include higher pay, but neither the union nor the company publicly specified a number.

The airline’s CEO Bob Jordan confirmed to Bloomberg that it has seen an increase in the pilot attrition rate, especially among younger first officers who have a lower position on the seniority list.

A Wide-Ranging Issue

While this might be a newer issue for Southwest, it can also be by design for other low-cost airlines, including ultra-low-cost carriers (ULCC) Spirit, Frontier and Avelo. All three airlines have agreements with major flight schools such as ATP.

Flight school students who opt for these programs can dodge the more traditional regional airline route for the right seat on an Airbus or Boeing jet. Pilots can then build hours at these LCCs for a step up into a career at a larger airline.

A Spirit A320 in New York (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

Attrition has more than doubled at Spirit and Frontier along with Southwest, according to the report. In November 2023, nearly 42% of pilots who started less than a year earlier left these airlines.

Record Hiring

While Southwest may be struggling to retain some of its first officers, it is still hiring in record volumes. So far in 2023, the airline has hired 1,796 pilots, up nearly 58% from last year, according to data from FAPA.

On the other hand, Spirit has halted pilot hiring altogether as it navigates financial woes. Frontier has steadily hired 480 new aviators so far this year while opening a handful of new crew bases.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on Friday, Dec. 22, 2023 at 1:14 p.m. ET to accurately reflect that Southwest pilots are paid by flight segment, not hourly. 

Ryan Ewing
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  • Ryan Ewing

    Ryan founded AirlineGeeks.com back in February 2013 and has amassed considerable experience in the aviation sector. His work has been featured in several publications and news outlets, including CNN, WJLA, CNET, and Business Insider. During his time in the industry, he's worked in roles pertaining to airport/airline operations while holding a B.S. in Air Transportation Management from Arizona State University along with an MBA. Ryan has experience in several facets of the industry from behind the yoke of a Cessna 172 to interviewing airline industry executives. Ryan works for AirlineGeeks' owner FLYING Media, spearheading coverage in the commercial aviation space.

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