Skift Take

After years of record hiring, job growth in the airline industry may finally slow down.

During the pandemic, an acute labor shortage stretching from pilots to baggage handlers plagued the airline industry. So they sought to hire thousands of new employees and signed record-breaking contracts with their pilot unions. 

But now it looks like that hiring surge is coming to an end — and there may even be some job cuts, Southwest CEO Bob Jordan said at the JPMorgan Industrials conference in New York. 

The main reasoning for the slowdown: Boeing delivery delays and demand for airline industry jobs returning to pre-pandemic levels.

Boeing Delays Halt Hiring

Pilots and flight attendants, once at the center of the industry’s labor shortage, are facing some of the steepest reductions in hiring in 2024. Jordan said the carrier expects to cut hiring for new pilot and flight attendant roles as it trims capacity due to certification issues with the Boeing 737 Max 7.

Southwest previously said it would pause pilot hiring after March to bring hiring levels either at or below its turnover rate. Now that pause is extending over to flight attendant hiring, which Southwest initially expected to slow down later in the year. 

“Given the news on Boeing aircraft delivery delays … managing our plan just is not enough,” Jordan said at the conference. “Going forward, we are actively and urgently focused on further cost reductions.”

Southwest is not the only airline to slow pilot hiring. United told staff in a memo that it planned to pause pilot hiring for the spring because it isn’t expecting its orders for the larger Max 10 to be filled in 2024. 

United CEO Scott Kirby said that the carrier recently told Boeing to “stop building” Max 10s for them and to instead make Max 9s to fulfill those orders. Kirby added that United has the option to switch the order back to the Max 10 once it’s certified. 

“It’s impossible to say when the Max 10 is going to get certified,” Kirby said at the JPMorgan conference. 

Demand for Airline Industry Jobs Evens Out

The other aspect in the hiring slowdown is that demand is returning to pre-pandemic levels. Delta Air Lines slowed its pilot hiring for 2024 because it reached a “more normalized, growth pattern that is reflective of Delta’s full operational restoration post-pandemic and continued focus on industry leadership.”

Higher fuel costs and inflation may also be leveling out that demand. In a regulatory filing, Southwest also cited a need to “offset overall inflationary cost pressures,” when it came to cutting new jobs. 

Jordan said one of the other reasons Southwest was looking to cut costs as a way to improve its efficiency. 

The Southwest CEO said the carrier would reconsider hiring plans across the board, including those on the corporate side as the carrier looks to digitize more of its operations and potentially use generative AI chatbots for customer service.

“This is not business as usual,” Jordan said. “We’re being very aggressive in controlling what we can control despite the fact that some of these changes are very recent.”


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Tags: boeing 737 max 10, pilot shortage, southwest airlines, united airlines

Photo credit: Vincenzo Pace

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