Southwest Airlines is doubling overtime pay for some staff over the July 4 week as it eyes a huge bump in travel, CNBC reported.
Flight attendants, ground-operations agents, and cargo agents will earn double for picking up extra shifts in a bid to avoid disruptions over the Independence Day weekend, per CNBC.
Demand for travel is rebounding fast as the US economy reopens but the aviation industry faces a staffing shortage after letting too many pilots and flight attendants go during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Southwest has been hit by a series of flight disruptions caused by technical problems and bad weather. It delayed nearly 4,000 flights and canceled hundreds more over a three-day period in mid-June because of a glitch in weather data and a computer-system outage. It also canceled hundreds of flights over the weekend and Monday after airports were hit by severe thunderstorms.
In a memo to staff Monday, reported by CNBC, Alan Kasher, executive vice president of daily operations at Southwest, said: “We have heard from many of you who are frustrated with our network reliability and irregular operations created by summer storms across many parts of the country.
“To address the situation for the short term, we will be incentivizing our Ops Employees during this busy holiday travel week by increasing overtime pay from July 1 through July 7.”
Flight attendants will get double pay for picking up open shifts over that week, Sonya Lacore, vice president of inflight operations at Southwest, wrote in a separate staff memo Monday, per CNBC. A spokesperson told the publication that ground and cargo operations staff would also get double pay for overtime shifts.
Southwest did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
The Transportation Security Administration screened 2,066,964 passengers on Monday – 84% of the number it screened on the same day in 2019.
But Southwest is struggling to find enough staff as demand for flights returns. As well as doubling overtime pay, the airline is bumping up its minimum wage to $15 later this year, which it said would boost paychecks for around 7,000 staff.
Still, some pilots who were on leave during the pandemic have yet to be retrained before they can return to work.
“We have about 900 pilots who are coming back from extended time off that are being trained in June and July and we’ll probably slip into August,” Casey Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), told WFAA.
“We have the pilots,” he said. “We just don’t have the pilots trained currently.”
SWAPA told members Monday that Southwest had also offered double pay for pilots during the July 4 week, which it called “inadequate”. The union said that it had not come to an agreement with the airline on pay, CNBC reported.
“It has been clear (since spring!) that our operation was on track for a brutal summer caused by overselling a schedule that they absolutely cannot fill,” SWAPA told members.
“This [July 4] weekend coming up is going to be a true test for the entire breadth of Southwest Airlines,” Murray told WFAA.
Travel is surging in the US and airlines are once again faced with shortages, but it’s more than just pilots this time.
Many US carriers shed older aircraft from their fleets in a cash-saving effort during the worst times of the pandemic. At the time, vaccines a distant dream and travel demand wasn’t expected to rebound for years.
“The airlines were being forced to make very complex decisions under enormous pressure,” Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst and cofounder of Atmosphere Research Group, told Insider. “Key among them is: How do you bring your costs down to survive an approximately 96% decline in demand?”
“We don’t feel like we have enough airplanes for 2022 and 2023, and that’s just doing what you know us to be famous for,” Gary Kelly, Southwest’s chief executive officer, CNBC, referring to its current business of mostly domestic flying.
Now that demand is ramping up, airlines might find themselves without enough planes to keep up and Southwest isn’t the only airline that shed planes during the pandemic. Delta Air Lines similarly parted with three fleet types including the McDonnell-Douglas MD-80/MD-90, Boeing 737-700, and Boeing 777-200 series of aircraft.
Those aircraft now sit in storage facilities and bringing them back into service would be too great of an expense for airlines, according to Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis for Teal Group. New builds from manufacturers, including the Boeing 737 Max and Airbus A220, are preferable but come at a slower rate.
The aircraft shortage is also compounded by the age-old pilot shortage, with not even pilots to fly the ambitious schedules that airlines have set. American Airlines saw the impacts of over-scheduling in mid-June when hundreds of flights were canceled in a single weekend thanks to a combination of labor shortages and severe weather.
“The pilot shortage that loomed over the industry in 2019 may have abated slightly, but it hasn’t gone away,” Harteveldt said.
Airlines moved to shed staff last year, including pilots and flight attendants, through buyouts and voluntary separation programs in a bid to lower costs. But just like with aircraft, some may have parted ways with too many now that demand is rebounding.
“Perhaps they had lost more pilots and flight attendants than they otherwise would have wanted and as a result, that may have reduced their ability to scale up their flying as demand returned,” Harteveldt said.
Shortages stemming from massive staff reductions also could’ve been avoided since airlines were the recipients of three rounds of federal stimulus money.
“I think that the airlines would probably admit – privately if not on the record – that perhaps they should have been less aggressive in encouraging employees to the pilots and flight attendants to take buyouts and leave the company when the government was going to cover 70% of those employees’ wages,” Harteveldt said.
Airline schedules are now highly unreliable and travelers booking flights should be prepared for unexpected changes or cancellations. Changes to airline schedules can occur anytime and travelers should frequently be checking their bookings to see if changes have occurred.
Southwest Airlines is hiking its minimum wage to $15 an hour as travel inches back towards pre-pandemic levels.
“Southwest continually works to attract and retain the best candidates for open positions,” a company spokesperson said in a statement to Insider. “As part of this ongoing effort, Southwest is increasing minimum pay rates so that all hourly employees will make at least $15 per hour.”
More than 7,000 current employees will see bigger paychecks as a result of the wage hike, Southwest said. The airline added that it will aim for the boost to take effect by August 1 but that some of its work groups will need to negotiate to implement the change.
The wage bump will affect reservations agents, baggage and cargo handlers, and customer service employees, among others, according to Bloomberg, which was first to report the news. The change will spell out an additional $1.30 an hour on average, Bloomberg reports.
The announcement comes in the midst of renewed interest in travel, thanks to reduced coronavirus restrictions and the reopening of the economy. It also closely follows a prediction from Southwest CEO Gary Kelly that the carrier likely doesn’t have enough planes to keep up with demand in 2022 and 2023. The airline has enough staff to carry it through the summer, Southwest’s vice president of labor relations, Russell McCrady, told Bloomberg.
Southwest is the latest company to struggle finding workers to fill open jobs at existing wage levels. Big names like Amazon, McDonald’s and JBS are among those trying to draw new employees with promises of signup bonuses, increased pay and other incentives. Costco boosted its minimum wage to $16 an hour in February. In the same month, Walmart announced it would raise wages for 425,000 workers, although its minimum starting wage would remain $11 an hour.
Airlines could hike charges on overweight baggage as they try to account for heavier passengers, an industry expert told Insider.
American Airlines confirmed to Insider on June 10 that its average passenger weights had increased, while airline officials told the Wall Street Journal that average passenger and baggage weights had risen between 5% and 10%, but did not say over what period.
Henry Harteveldt, president of travel research firm Atmosphere Research Group, told Insider that he wouldn’t be “surprised if airlines use the higher passenger weight estimates to charge passengers more money.”
Airlines might reduce their weight limit for checked bags, increase charges for overweight luggage, or both, he said.
“Somewhere, in the bowels of an airline’s headquarter building, a zealous financial analyst is licking her or his lips, relishing the chance to use this as an opportunity extract more money from that airline’s passengers.”
Weight estimates are used to calculate the weight and balance of the aircraft before take off – vital data needed to ensure the plane can fly safely. Keeping within weight limits can be harder in hotter climates and at higher altitudes where more energy is needed to lift the plane, requiring more fuel.
Airlines had until June 12 to submit new average passenger and baggage weight estimates to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the government body that regulates commercial airlines, the Journal reported.
An American Airlines spokesperson told Insider that its average passenger weight was 182 pounds in summer and 187 pounds in winter, “an 8-pound increase for both seasons.” The spokesperson also said that American expects carry-on baggage to be five pounds heavier in new estimates, and checked bags to be 4 pounds heavier.
American told Insider it plans to use larger aircraft for flights where it anticipates there may be weight issues, and limit ticket sales “if necessary.” It added, however, that most of its flights are able to accommodate heavier passengers. A company spokesperson said there would be no change in customer experience following the weight changes.
Harteveldt said airlines “constantly” look for ways to reduce aircraft weight, for example, by buying lighter seats, scrapping in-seat entertainment hardware, and reducing the size of toilet cubicles.
Harteveldt added that he has even known airlines to buy lighter cutlery and cups to save weight, and stocking the plane with fewer food and drink items.
Helane Becker, airlines analyst and managing director of investment bank Cowen, told Insider that the “trend in heavier people has been going on for years,” and that she expected airlines to both change overweight bag charges and accept less mail and fewer small packages.
Southwest Airlines told Insider that the FAA had approved its submission in early June and had no plans to “increase overweight or oversized baggage fees.”
Industry body Airlines for America, which speaks on behalf of 10 major airlines, also said that it doesn’t “anticipate there will be any noticeable changes” for customers, in an emailed statement.
Delta Air Lines said they had developed an “implementation plan” to minimize any impact on customers, although did not share any details.
A retired Southwest Airlines pilot was sentenced to probation on Friday after pleading guilty to showing his genitals to a female first officer and watching pornography during a flight from Philadelphia to Florida last year.
Prosecutors alleged that Michael Haak, 66, waited until the flight reached cruising altitude before he got up from the pilot’s seat and “intentionally disrobed” while watching porn on a laptop, USA Today reported.
“Haak further engaged in inappropriate conduct in the cockpit, as the first officer continued to perform her duties,” prosecutors said in a statement, according to the BBC. Haak had never met the female first officer before the flight.
Judge J Mark Coulson sentenced Haak to one year of unsupervised probation and a $5,000 fine. Coulson said the ex- pilot’s actions had traumatized the first officer.
Haak apologized for his actions and said they had “started as a consensual prank between me and the other pilot,” the BBC reported.
“I never imagined it would turn into this in a thousand years,” he added.
Haak, who is originally from Florida, was a pilot with Southwest Airlines for 27 years. He retired at the end of August last year.
A spokesperson for Southwest Airlines told USA Today that the airline “does not tolerate behavior of this nature and will take prompt action if such conduct is substantiated.”
“Nonetheless, Southwest did investigate the matter and as a result, ceased paying Mr. Haak any benefits he was entitled to receive as a result of his separation from (the airline),” the spokesperson added.
A flight attendant for Southwest Airlines was assaulted over the weekend and lost two teeth from the incident, according to a letter a flight-attendant union sent to the company’s CEO, Gary Kelly, on Monday.
The letter, from the Transport Workers Union of America local 556 (TWU), said there have been 477 incidents of violence and unruly behavior on Southwest Airlines flights between April 8 and May 15. Earlier in the month, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said it had received 2,500 reports of unruly passengers since January.
“This unprecedented number of incidents has reached an intolerable level, with passenger non-compliance events also becoming more aggressive in nature,” the union wrote. “Today’s traveling environment requires a new level of firmness in both tone and direction to ensure proper control in the cabin of our aircraft as the attitudes and behaviors of the flying public have, unfortunately, declined.”
A Southwest Airlines spokesperson confirmed the incident occured on a flight from Sacramento to San Diego on Sunday morning.
“The passenger repeatedly ignored standard in-flight instructions (tray table in upright position, seat belt, etc.) and became verbally and physically abusive upon landing,” the spokesperson said. “We do not condone or tolerate verbal or physical abuse of our Flight Crews, who are responsible for the safety of our passengers.”
The spokesperson told Insider the company is working with the FAA to improve safety measures for flight attendants and passengers. The passenger, who was identified as a 28-year-old woman, was taken into police custody and has been charged with felony battery, USA Today reported.
In its letter, the flight-attendants union called for increased penalties and restrictions for passengers who demonstrate “egregious behavior,” as well as an increase in the number of federal air marshals on flights.
“The last year has brought many unknowns, and much has been out of our control,” the union said. “Please keep your crews in mind and understand the impact of today’s environment on our Crews’ working conditions.”
A new United Airlines advertising campaign is directly targeting Southwest Airlines as the two compete for travelers in Denver.
The “Mile High Standards” campaign critiques Southwest for things like its on-time performance and open seating policy while boasting about United’s offerings like non-stop flights to Hawaii, as well as the airline’s long-time presence in Colorado’s capital city.
United is billing the strategy as “bold” and “unlike any you’ve ever seen from us before,” with its low-cost rival solely in the crosshairs. One example criticizes Southwest’s lack of direct flights to Hawaii and Cozumel from Denver.
Not all of United’s advertisements are directed towards Southwest with some aimed at highlighting the key role that Denver plays for the airline.
United in 2018 opened a flight training center in Denver that houses more than 30 flight simulators and trains around 10,000 pilots each year. United is also the only US airline offering intercontinental flights from Denver to cities like London; Frankfurt, Germany; and Tokyo, in normal times.
Rocky Mountain Rivalry
Denver has proved to be an important base for both Southwest and United during the pandemic. Travelers have flocked to the Mountain West thanks to pandemic-friendly activities like camping, hiking, and skiing.
United has invested additional resources to accommodate, including a luxury bus service from the airport to Breckenridge, Colorado that passengers can book just as they would a regular United flight. Operated by Landline, the bus departs from a terminal gate, and checked bags are transported directly from flyers’ incoming flights.
The announcement was peculiar given that no exact timing was given for the once-daily flight and international travel between the UK and US is currently extremely limited. United also seldom launches transatlantic routes that don’t pass through one of its hubs.
The West Coast of the US stretches more than 1,000 miles with no shortage of major cities from San Diego to Seattle.
All the major US airlines serve this important region of the country but two are battling for dominance, Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines.
Alaska is based in Seattle, although its name suggests otherwise, and is a mid-tier US airline with the bulk of its operations on the West Coast.
Southwest, on the other hand, is the country’s largest low-cost carrier with a nationwide presence. And while the West Coast is an important region for the airline, it’s just one of many Southwest serves.
Both carriers have sought to grow market share on the West Coast during the pandemic. Southwest added Santa Barbara and Fresno to its California route network while Alaska has added routes from existing cities.
I flew on both airlines this year to see which one was truly the airline of the West Coast. Here’s what I found.
West Coast connectivity: Alaska serves 29 cities up and down the coast, including smaller cities like Everett, Washington; Santa Rosa, California; and Medford, Oregon.
Southwest serves 15 West Coast cities and plans to serve two more this summer. Bellingham, Washington flights will also open sometime this year.
Winner: Alaska Airlines. The airline’s connectivity between West Coast cities large and small cannot be beaten by Southwest’s existing network.
What comes with the ticket: Every Southwest ticket includes free seat selection anywhere on the plane after boarding, two checked bags, a carry-on bag, and all the onboard amenities.
Southwest has open seating so any open seat is available for passengers.
Alaska does allow free seat selection for economy but charges extra for seats close to the front and exit row seats.
Alaska, like many full-service carriers, has also embraced restrictive basic economy fares that replaced its cheapest fares. The product is generous with and limited advanced seat assignments and a free carry-on bag but flyers will have to pay more for better seats and checked bags.
Southwest doesn’t have change or cancel fees for any ticket.
Alaska has eliminated change fees but not for basic economy fares, known as “saver” fares.
Winner: Southwest Airlines. The flexibility and free extras offered by Southwest put it well and above Alaska. It’s worth noting, however, that even Alaska’s basic economy fares are more generous than many of its competitors.
Boarding: Alaska boards its aircraft in groups that are assigned based on seat location and fare class. First class boards first, followed by elite status holders, those sitting in “premium class.” Economy then boards back to front, for the most part, and basic economy flyers board dead last.
On Southwest, however, passengers are given a boarding number and group that’s determined by how early they check-in for the flight. Once on the plane, they can select any open seat.
Winner: Southwest Airlines. Alaska’s boarding process relegates basic economy passengers to the very last section while even the passenger with the cheapest ticket on Southwest has the opportunity to board earlier if they check-in at exactly 24 hours prior to departure.
Onboard amenities: Both airlines are in the process of modernizing their fleets but older aircraft remain. On Southwest, for example, I flew on the 737-700 fleet on my most recent trip and it was the furthest from modern.
But its updated aircraft have a great, modern look, as I found on flights from New York to Orlando in 2020.
Before the pandemic, however, Alaska sold meals and snack boxes while Southwest just stuck to drinks and small snacks.
Winner: Alaska Airlines.
West Coast feel: Alaska has its roots in the West Coast and that shows in its branding. The colors are vibrant, there is a focus on West Coast brands in the in-flight service, and the airline is based in Seattle.
Southwest has a generic appeal as it connects the US through bases across the country with no specific ties to the West Coast. There’s no West Coast feel.
Winner: Alaska Airlines: There’s an undeniable feeling when flying on Alaska that it’s more in tune with the West Coast vibe than Southwest.
National connectivity: Alaska is highly concentrated on the West Coast while Southwest has bases across the US.
Southwest doesn’t have the sprawling West Coast network that Alaska does but it does offer connections between most of the region’s major cities and connections to the rest of the country through its mid-continent bases in places like Phoenix, Denver, Las Vegas, and Dallas.
Alaska only has hubs in the West Coast cities of Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland, requiring a stop in one of those cities before heading east. The airline does partner with airlines like American to offer mixed-airline itineraries but that could be difficult if the airlines are in two different terminals.
Winner: Southwest Airlines. Having more mid-continent bases allows for more convenient journeys with lower travel times for customers.
Business traveler amenities: Corporate travelers have different priorities than most leisure travelers and will often spend more for seats in premium cabins and access lounges.
Alaska has premium lounges in six airports, and partners with American and Qantas on lounge access for members. Southwest does not have any lounges.
Alaska’s jet aircraft also have first class cabins, the domain of the business traveling road warrior, while Southwest does not.
A special section of economy is also available on Alaska. Called “premium class,” seats in the section offer additional legroom and come with complimentary alcoholic beverages.
Alaska is also a member of the Oneworld airline alliance and Alaska’s elite status holders can use their benefits on other airlines like American and British Airways, and vice versa. Southwest is not a part of any airline alliance.
Southwest does have a special fare for business travelers, called “Business Select,” that includes extras like priority boarding and free alcoholic drinks (suspended during the pandemic).
And Southwest does have better connectivity outside of the West Coast. A business traveler in St. Louis looking to fly to New York couldn’t even choose Alaska if they wanted to.
Winner: Alaska Airlines. Business travelers have more premium amenities at their disposal on Alaska, if the choice is between Alaska and Southwest.
Airline of the West Coast: Alaska Airlines. Both airlines are incredibly similar but Alaska has more West Coast-oriented amenities to help it pull ahead of Southwest.
It should be noted that the woman is wearing a mask at the start of the clip.
The reaction of those on the plane, however, suggests this was not the case earlier on.
The woman, whose identity is unknown, is insistent that she did not break the rules. “I did comply,” says the woman to the flight attendant. “You’re saying I didn’t comply and put my mask on when you ask asked me to?”
Shortly after, the woman accuses the flight attendant of not telling the truth. “You’re a liar and you have to live with that,” she is heard saying.
Those on the flight then begin to heckle the woman and start saying their farewells.
“Bye,” shouts one person.
“Get off the plane,” yells another.
“That’s what happens when you don’t say you’re sorry,” someone else can be heard saying.
The woman then stands up, shows her middle finger to those on the plane, and walks off with her traveling companion.
The remaining passengers appear jubilant, with one woman proceeding to dance.
Insider contacted Southwest for further context on the incident. The airline said that it does not have any further details on the situation but provided information on its mask-wearing policy.
“Federal law requiresSouthwest to ensure every person age two and over to wear a mask at all times throughout a flight, including during boarding and deplaning,” a Southwest Airlines spokesperson said. “We communicate the face-covering mandate to all Customers at multiple touchpoints throughout the travel journey.”
Southwest Airlines has settled on the Boeing 737 Max 7 as the successor of its Boeing 737-700 fleet, announcing a finalized order with the manufacturer on Monday for 100 aircraft and options for 155 more.
The deal brings Southwest’s new Boeing 737 Max order total to 349 aircraft consisting of 200 of the smaller Max 7s and 149 of the larger Max 8s, some of which are already flying passengers. An additional 270 Max aircraft of either variety are also available to Southwest, on option, between 2021 and 2031.
Boeing’s current list prices value the 100 aircraft at around $10 billion. Airlines, however, rarely pay list price and Boeing has been known to discount Max aircraft as a result of the grounding.
But Southwest’s decision comes as no surprise since the 737 Max 7 is the next-generation variant of the 737-700 that it’s replacing at Southwest and the airline doesn’t have to worry about inducting another manufacturer’s aircraft into its already streamlined fleet. Pilots already flying the 737 and 737 Max can fly the Max 7 with very little additional training and the same goes for mechanics tasked with servicing the fleet.
“This cost-effective order book with Boeing allows the company to maintain the operational efficiencies of an all-Boeing 737 fleet to support its low-cost, point-to-point route network,” Southwest said in a statement.
Southwest resumed flying the Boeing 737 Max on March 11 after an absence of nearly two years following the aircraft’s March 2019 grounding. By the end of April, as many as 261 Southwest Max flights will be flown daily, according to Cirium data.
The Max 7 can seat as many as 172 passengers, according to Boeing, while flying the furthest of any Max variant thanks to its smaller size. Any route in Southwest’s current network can be flown by the Max 7 and new ones can be forged.
With a range of 3,850 nautical miles, city pairs like Denver-Honolulu, Boston-Anchorage, and even New York-London are possible should Southwest want to stretch the aircraft’s legs. The competing Airbus A220-300 boasts only a 3,400 nautical mile range and maximum seating of 160 passengers, according to Airbus.
Southwest will end 2020 with 729 aircraft, 68 of which are Boeing 737 Max 8s.