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Can Airlines Get A Grip On Staffing Woes?

It’s been another bad week for Southwest Airlines. After a summer of disastrous flight cancellations, the airline is now being sued by its pilots union for forcing staff to take unpaid leave during the pandemic.

In a complaint filed in court on Monday, the Southwest Pilots Association have alleged that the airline acted unilaterally rather than bargaining with the union when the pandemic began to affect travel demand in spring 2020. This included not paying staff when they were forced to quarantine following exposure to Covid-19.

Southwest pilots have previously threatened to strike this winter because of the gruelling conditions they faced during a rebound in passenger numbers over the summer. Flight crews were working back-to-back shifts and left without food or hotel accommodation as the airline scrambled to lay on extra services to keep up with demand.

Southwest pilots are threatening to strike this winter over poor treatment during the summer travel boom

Southwest has since issued an apology to its staff and promised to reduce its schedule this month, cancelling up to 27 flights a day. CEO Garry Kelly said he apologised for his airline’s poor performance and assured customers he was “confident these adjustments would create a more reliable travel experience”.

Across the board, many airlines struggled with staffing this summer as demand for travel entered an unexpected post-pandemic boom. Spirit Airlines was forced to cancel 2,800 flights in just ten days, while American Airlines had to drop 950 services in July - approximately 1% of its total schedule.

Part of the reason for this was poor planning in terms of staffing, with American Airlines notable for furloughing the most pilots and flight attendants during the pandemic. This left the airline ill-equipped to deal with the eventual surge in Americans looking to travel this summer.

Meanwhile, although Southwest did not lay off any staff during the pandemic, it stretched itself way too thin in terms of service: laying on more new routes than any of the other big four airlines without a proportionate increase in staff numbers.

Delta Airlines is looking to hire 3,000 flight attendants by summer 2022 - the largest carrier to up its staff intake.

Now Southwest is looking to hire once again, but perhaps all too late. The airline is seeking to boost its workforce intake by 16% this year, recruiting an additional 5,200 staff by November. However, news of the company’s poor record over the summer has clearly spread and management are having to offer staff $300 referral bonuses in order to attract qualified applicants.

By contrast, Delta airlines kept an even keel during the summer surge: laying on additional routes without suffering huge numbers of cancellations. Like Southwest, it didn't threaten to furlough a single worker during the pandemic and is now looking to double its intake of flight attendants by Summer 2022. This makes Delta the largest carrier to add jobs following the pandemic, with an additional 3,000 flight attendants set to be pace the aisles next year.

As in many other industries, the pandemic has highlighted the real value of workers to the airline sector. Those companies who have treated their staff generously through the pandemic look set to reap the rewards as travel recovers; while those who have laid off staff or worked them to the bone look set to lose out in the long run. Ultimately, a lot of these staffing woes are baked in from the pandemic, but as the travel industry looks set to experience another dip in passenger numbers this autumn, airlines would do well to take the long-term view in returning to profitability.

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