U.S. carriers hoping to build out flight schedules face headwinds from unfilled jobs and, in the case of Southwest Airlines Co., a surprising spike in staffing no-shows.
The industry is hiring thousands pilots and flight attendants more than a year after trimming jobs as travel collapsed with the coronavirus pandemic. Reservation agents also are high in demand.
But the need — and the challenge — is greatest for entry-level jobs like baggage handlers, ticket counter and gate agents, cabin cleaners, aircraft fuelers and folks who restock galleys.
“Airlines used to be a place where people flocked to work because the pay was good, the benefits were good. Today there are so many other options,”
Some candidates are deterred by the weeks-long wait to be vetted for airport access badges before they can begin a job, and by the year-round outdoor work required for some positions, said Andy Decker, CEO of I.K. Hofmann USA, a staffing and recruiting company that works with airlines and contractors.
Other industries are boosting pay and offering incentives to win over prospective hires. Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc., Best Buy Co. and CVS Health Corp. all have improved compensation to attract workers. Target Corp. pledged $200 million to fund educational courses for U.S. employees, while Walmart Inc. sweetened an existing program by investing $1 billion to pay tuition costs to help retain existing workers.
“You need this aggressive ground game to go where candidates are, and it is absolutely — I hate to characterize it as a battle, but it is,” said Thomas Rajan, vice president of global talent at American Airlines.
What the airline couldn’t foresee was that a higher rate of absent employees — whether ill from coronavirus, kept home by quarantine, having to continue home schooling or electing not to return from voluntary leave — would stretch its workforce and result in more than 99,000 delayed arrivals over the summer. That’s the highest number, and second worst on a percentage basis, among a group of eight U.S. carriers, according to data from FlightAware.com.
After a while, people just don’t want to work the overtime,” said Bret Oestreich, national director of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, which represents mechanics at Southwest, Alaska Airlines and its Horizon Airlines unit. “They’ve been used and abused and worked to death.”
Some baggage handlers at American are working as much as 100 hours of mandatory overtime above their normal 80 work hours in a two-week period, said TWU’s Peterson.
Adding to the pain, airlines and other hospitality-related companies were late in the recovery cycle, following other industries that already had tapped into what labor pools were available, said Greg Muccio, director of talent acquisition at Southwest. Carriers often find themselves competing against each other as well. The carrier has said it’s seen a “sharp decline” in qualified applicants.
“We just were kind of last to the party,” Muccio said in an interview. “That’s created a problem. We’re all competing for everybody at the same location. It just makes for a really, really tough hiring environment.”
Southwest Pilots’ Union Sues Over Work Rule Changes
Southwest pilots’ union sued the carrier this week, alleging the airline violated federal labor laws by altering work rules during the pandemic travel slump without negotiating the changes.
Those included changes to work conditions and pilot pay rules and rates, such as an “emergency” time-off program, according to the lawsuit, which the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association filed in federal court in Dallas on Monday.
Southwest denied the allegations that its changed required negotiation with the union.
“Southwest Airlines, like the rest of the industry, has been forced to respond to the unpredictable challenges presented by the global COVID-19 pandemic,” Russell McCrady, Southwest’s vice president of labor relations said in a statement. “The airline disagrees with SWAPA’s claims that any COVID-related changes over the past few months required negotiation.”
The pilots union said in the complaint that it is seeking an injunction to force the company to revert to the terms of their collective bargaining agreement.
The lawsuit comes as tensions between Southwest’s workers and management are on the rise.
Southwest pilots’ labor union this month said it was considering pickets at airports over Thanksgiving and Christmas to protest work conditions.
Piston, turboprop, business jet and helicopter deliveries have risen across all segments during the first six months of 2021, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA).
“While it is encouraging to see segments improve from 2020, we still trail when compared to how the industry was faring before the onset of the pandemic,” said GAMA President and CEO Pete Bunce. “Efforts to address ongoing supply chain issues, strengthen our workforce and enhance environmental sustainability will continue to be at the forefront as interest and demand for aircraft remains robust.
The turboprop airplane segment jumped to 221 units delivered compared to 152 in the first half of 2020, a 45.4 percent increase. Turbine helicopter deliveries rose 33 percent with 258 delivered followed by piston helicopters at 31.7 percent with 83 shipped. 565 piston airplanes were delivered, a 12.3 percent improvement on last year’s 503. Finally, business jet shipments rose 8.2 percent from 244 units to 264.
Amazon’s air fleet, which now has 75 planes, is another increasingly critical component of the company’s logistics machine. The fleet gives Amazon greater control over its own packages and enables it to offer even faster deliveries.
It’s also bringing Amazon into direct competition with FedEx and UPS. Analysts have long predicted that Amazon is on its way to becoming a “top logistics provider” and anticipate it could one day fly packages for other companies, not just items in its own warehouses.
The company’s latest air cargo expansion suggests Amazon Air is inching toward becoming a more serious competitor to traditional carriers.
Amazon Air now operates out of 42 airports in the U.S., after it added regular flights to seven airports in the last six months, according to a study issued Wednesday by DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.
That puts 70% of the U.S. population within 100 miles of an Amazon Air airport, up from 54% in May 2020, according to the study.
Last month, Amazon opened its $1.5 billion “superhub” at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, which spans 600 acres and features an 800,000-square-foot robotic sort center, where packages are sorted by zip code and consolidated into trucks before delivery. The hub could handle up to 200 flights a day.