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Causes and Effects of Reducing Southwest Pilots’ Hours

Why the airline is looking to cut pilot hours and what the future holds.

A Southwest 737 MAX at Paine Field (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Katie Zera)

According to a Reuters report over the weekend, Southwest plans to offer its pilots reduced hours, and thus reduced pay, as it continues to wait on delayed aircraft deliveries from Boeing. The company’s order of 737 MAX 7 aircraft seems delayed indefinitely as the aircraft awaits FAA certification, and fewer 737 MAX 8s will be delivered compared to expectations as Boeing undergoes additional scrutiny from the regulator.

Southwest will accept roughly 20 new jets this year, far below its original March forecast of over 40.

Reducing Pilot Hours

Reducing pilot hours will allow the airline to lower what it pays in salaries without needing to furlough crews, the report said. Pilots will be scheduled so that they meet all FAA pilot currency requirements, allowing Southwest to increase capacity at a moment’s notice. This is undoubtedly a lesson learned from the COVID-19 pandemic; as demand picked up sooner and faster than expected, airlines lost out on revenues because they had to send pilots to simulator training before sending them back to fly the line.

“Achieving our financial goals is an immediate imperative. The recent news from Boeing regarding further aircraft delivery delays presents significant challenges for both 2024 and 2025,” Southwest CEO Bob Jordan said during the company’s first-quarter earnings call.

A Southwest Airlines 737 on final approach to Los Angeles International Airport. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

“We are reacting and replanning quickly to mitigate the operational and financial impacts while maintaining dependable and reliable flight schedules for our customers,” Jordan continued.

Southwest’s plan will take effect in September. The relatively long wait time signals that the carrier is prepared to use the tactic for a prolonged period if needed. Hundreds of pilots will be offered entry into the program, sources told Reuters. The company says it is still working with the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), the union that represents the airline’s pilots, to reach an agreement in order to effectively roll out the program.

“There hasn’t been an official decision from SWA leadership to address the continued Boeing delays. We’ve had very preliminary talks, but they do need our agreement to offer any voluntary paid time off. We will continue to work with them to address Boeing’s failings,” the President of SWAPA told FOX News.

Southwest’s Financial Savings

Many airline unions have minimum required hours for which pilots must be paid no matter how they fly. If SWAPA requires that pilots be paid for only 75 hours per month, for example, Southwest Airlines could save nearly $3000/month in pay for one junior pilot if they only fly 75 hours instead of 100. Multiply that by 12,000 people and the company could theoretically save tens of millions of dollars per month before factoring in salaries at the upper end of the scale.

Southwest’s Freedom One aircraft under tow at Dallas Love Field.
(Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

For the time being, Southwest is also completely pausing pilot hiring and has cut services to several airports in an effort to save money. However, by avoiding furloughs, Southwest won’t be in the same camp as Spirit, which announced it would send home over 250 pilots.

Boeing Delivery Delays

Airlines such as Southwest are expressing their frustration with Boeing’s certification delays for months, with messages from CEOs growing ever louder since the Alaska 1282 incident in January. United Airlines is also slowing pilot hiring, and eyeing Airbus aircraft, in response to delays in 737 MAX 10 deliveries.

The last time Southwest was planning a major aircraft order, it publicly threatened to purchase aircraft from a Boeing competitor in an apparent attempt to force Boeing’s hand at bigger discounts. While the airline said after making a purchase with Boeing that it was never seriously considering buying from Airbus, Embraer, or Bombardier, SWAPA still retained two law firms in March to prepare in case Southwest attempted to merge with or buy a competitor. Such a move would give Southwest access to more airplanes, more crews, and more airport slots to allow it to start expanding again.

Hope For the Best, Prepare for the Worst

Southwest seems to be taking preemptive steps to keep it from getting into a position similar to Spirit or JetBlue, which is also working on restructuring its route network and debts at the moment. By cutting costs voluntarily now, Southwest could avoid a situation where it’s forced to later.

Many expect that hiring, suspended services, and more will pick up the moment deliveries return to expected levels. However, there is no telling when that will be for Boeing, as the FAA’s heightened oversight of the manufacturer is continuing. 737 MAX monthly delivery numbers have never recovered to the numbers seen before the MCAS crashes in 2018 and 2019.

John McDermott


  • John McDermott

    John McDermott is a student at Northwestern University. He is also a student pilot with hopes of flying for the airlines. A self-proclaimed "avgeek," John will rave about aviation at length to whoever will listen, and he is keen to call out any airplane he sees, whether or not anyone around him cares about flying at all. John previously worked as a Journalist and Editor-In-Chief at Aeronautics Online Aviation News and Media. In his spare time, John enjoys running, photography, and watching planes approach Chicago O'Hare from over Lake Michigan.

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