If you’ve seen the Martin Scorsese film The Departed, then you might remember that it features the Dropkick Murphy’s “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” as the soundtrack for the opening title sequence. Imagine, if you will, the Southwest version of the movie: SWA has lost 164 (at the time of this publication) Pilots since December 2021, who are similarly shipping up to greener pastures. Cue the bagpipes:
I’m shipping up to Delta (Whoa)
I’m shipping up to United (Whoa)
I’m shipping up to American (Whoa)
I’m shipping off, to find my wooden leg!
Okay, so they’re not leaving to find a prosthetic hewed from the hard grain of an oak tree, but they are shipping up to airlines where their prospects for a more lucrative career are much better than what they have found here at Southwest Airlines.
Over the last eight months, I have been reaching out to every Pilot with less than five years seniority who has departed. Their reasons for leaving are varied, however there are a few common pain points that have emerged from our conversations: insufficient pay, a difficult initial training, convoluted and inefficient reserve rules, online schedule abuse, lacking benefits, long upgrade time, and disillusionment at the realization that Southwest isn’t exactly the “LUV” airline it appears to be from the outside looking in.
Given the rapidly increasing number of departed Pilots, you’d think that the Company would attempt to learn the reasons for the exodus and work diligently to address the root causes. But alas, nobody at the Company has bothered to figure it out. Several lame excuses have been offered, including, “We don’t know,” “That’s just SWAPA’s rhetoric,” and “They don’t want to work for a company that is willing to strike.” Considering a majority of the departed who I’ve spoken to have left for Delta, which had a 98% SAV last year, the last statement is particularly vacuous.
Rather than write an expose on their thoughts, I think it is more impactful to hear their own words. The following is a sampling of the questions I asked and their responses:
What were your reasons for leaving SWA, in order of importance?
“Financial (retirement), financial (earning potential), job security.”
“Pay and other benefits (paid parking, uniforms, better disability).”
“QOL, long-term career growth, variety of flying.”
“Money. Southwest pay compared to old mainline contracts were good for a narrowbody of comparable size, but if you expand the pay to larger fleet types at other legacies, it pays better. The other issue of pay is upgrade times. Currently at Southwest, it’s eight-plus years. It’s currently nine months to be a 757/767 Captain at Delta. Southwest management can’t do anything about the upgrade times, so they really need to get a good contract together to offset the inability for a fast upgrade.”
“The incredible opportunity you have at United right now with being able to upgrade as soon as you are off probation if you want to, versus seven years at SWA to be OAK RSV forever. Another is the pay.”
“Commuting, out of touch management, upgrade length.”
How was your experience in new-hire training?
“Training was long. Too long. Needed more breaks.”
“There is definitely room for improvement with the scheduling, instructors, and benefits as we didn’t even get a positive space ticket home. The working for six days schedule for almost two months was a grind, and I’m sure there is room for improvement in the scheduling.”
“Push the training department to allow two days off for every five days of training. The schedule was really rough and draining. Lots of people wanted to go home but were unable to because of the demanding schedule.”
“Training was stressful as it didn’t seem very organized. Five to six days on with one day off at times was exhausting. Currently I’m at Delta and get two days off or more at a time in training with positive space flights home on the weekends.”
“Training honestly was very poor. It was all checking boxes and stump the dummy in class. How management treated some of my classmates was beyond unacceptable and was completely against everything Southwest stands for. We all got through training because we were all experienced Pilots, but soon in the future when Southwest has to hire less-experienced Pilots, it will be very rough.”
“I thought the new hire training was extremely long and outdated. The six days a week and being gone for 60 plus days was taxing on my family. The ground school was very monotonous and repeated itself a lot. Coming from prior 121, a lot of ground school could have been condensed. I also felt it was unorganized. The flows weren’t really explained well, and you had to really dig in the books to get expanded knowledge for what the flow was intended for. On OE, my check airman gave me a cheat sheet that honestly was the most valuable piece of information I received in training. It broke down a step-by-step, easy-to-read guide for all preflight activities. Once we got in the sim, the training was good for the most part. Some of the sims we wasted a lot of time where the instructor was teaching the ground instructors that were viewing our sessions.”
“I think training could be modernized as well. So much of ground school could have been done on the computer at home. Death by PowerPoint was a real thing in Dallas.”
How was your experience on the line?
“Over time, the schedules got worse and worse.”
“Reserve in the summer was rough with 5-leg days and reroutes. It was exhausting.”
“My experience on the line was great and it was why I came to Southwest in the first place. The frontline employees are easily the best in the business. It was so refreshing to not have to constantly battle with gate agents, flight attendants, and rampers like I had to do at Endeavor. I really felt like we were all on the same team.”
“Once I got on the line, it felt very similar to how flying was at Skywest: fast paced and enjoyable. The only thing that I started to realize is that most days are very long and over the course of three to four days, 10 to 11 hours of duty with six or seven hours of block each day starts to really add up. Since we have one plane, I realized that trip variety is nonexistent, so I knew for the next 32 years this would be my life. Not saying I want to fly internationally or do locals, but I would like the opportunity for some variety.”
“My experience on the line was excellent. The Captains and crew I got to fly with were very nice people and very welcoming. Captains I flew with were always accommodating and understanding of me being not new to flying but new to the Southwest operation.”
Did your perception of Southwest change once you were on the line?
“The shiny promises from training soon became dull and tarnished. I was putting more energy into the Company then I was getting in return. Production expectations were too high and the ‘fun environment’ didn’t offset the difficulties.”
“The schedules were worse than expected. I cannot remember the last time I got to break bread with my crew.”
“I was disappointed with the operation. Southwest flies the 737 very efficiently. The lack of operational staffing created an atmosphere that shocked me. Resignation/hopeless attitudes in all jobs. Nobody was trying to hustle, quick-turn, and get back on schedule. I had always viewed Southwest as a kick-butt operation. I wanted to be part of that and improve things. My perception was wrong. The Company has reached dinosaur size. Bob Jordan should be scared. Editor’s note: This reply was received prior to the Christmas meltdown. Bob should go to SkyWest Airlines and buy their FlightView and Skedplus software. Check IT box and focus on operations.”
“Upper level SWA management was a big reason for leaving. Stuck with the old way of doing things. Lack of leadership from the top. Professionalism from SWA is not there.”
“Absolutely, there is no company culture, especially from the Company, maybe some of the old school luv from some Pilots and senior FAs.”
“My perception of Southwest was based on its industry reputation, my friends there, and my reading of the book Nuts!. After getting online, I would say it was a bit different than I expected. The classic reputation of on-time urgency wasn’t there and it wasn’t as fun and light hearted as I expected. The employee groups felt more divided, and I felt there was less trust. Between older aircraft cabins and poor internet, it felt like infrastructure investment was poor and in stark contrast to the LEAD facility.”
“Yes. Southwest culture behind the curtain is shifting in a negative way and all of us on the line can feel it. Also, it feels like the Company is resisting against advances in technology.”
“The five legs per day pairing without having a chance to eat between flights was exhausting. Just the simple fact of operating more than four legs was tiring, but getting to an outstation so late that I was not able to eat because everything was closed was demoralizing.”
What did you think were the best parts of the SWAPA contract?
“Conceptually, the ability to increase or decrease work was good. It didn’t work in practice though.”
“Trip Rigs, days off, vacation.”
“ELITT and line bidding are huge and easily the best thing about the contract. It is leaps and bounds better than PBS.”
“Substandard hotel language.”
“Zero ability to swap reserve schedule with the Company. This made it extremely difficult as a commuter and the main reason why I left. Being on reserve for nearly 2.5 years with zero movement while the majors were hiring 1000-plus is a complete failure of management.”
“I was not happy with the fact that I had to call SWAPA so often to interpret parts of the Contract. For me, a lot of that Contract seems to be unnecessarily vague and/or opaque.”
“The worst part I’d say are items like disability, other benefits (parking, uniforms, medical), and training scheduling. I didn’t realize until I was flying the line how far below industry standard SWA is.”
“Pay, JA, lack of reserve flexibility.”
“Having to pay for uniforms and parking left me unimpressed with the contract. Delta (where I’m at now) pays for uniforms and parking.”
“JA risk to people who picked up Open Time. (When I was at SWA) I would never pick up Open Time because of it.”
“Reserve rules were honestly worse than when I was at the regionals. Having 2-hour call outs suck. And the fact even if you accept a trip for the next day, that you need to be in position for your RAP sucks for commuters. If you were able to acknowledge a trip with, let’s say, a 1700 report, it would be nice to commute in for that, not commute in one hour before the RAP begins. I also don’t understand why the Company will award all the Open Time flying to reserves instead of people bidding on it. I get not wanting to pay people to sit, but reserves are there for emergencies. If someone is willing to fly on their day off, they should be able to help out and fly so the reserve is there if something happens operationally.”
Among your Pilot peers, where does SWA fall in order of career choice among the other airlines?
“Average of 4th or 5th behind the legacies and cargo.”
“Below the Big Three.”
“I would say SWA is not a career airline for many of my peers leaving the military. If someone is really interested in SWA, it’s often because they live in a SWA base that is not also another airline’s base. I’d say many see SWA as a steppingstone or a safety net when leaving the Navy.”
“Honestly, and I hate to say this, but it’s lower than the Big Three. It would be close between Alaska and JetBlue, and higher than the ULCCs unless one lived in a ULCC base.”
“Honestly, not many of my friends want SWA. Living here in the southeast, they know how senior it is. And with the extremely long upgrade times and one airframe, it’s kind of looked at as a one-trick pony. There is so much opportunity at the other majors that my friends are doing whatever they can to get on with them.”
Did SWAs issuance of 1,221 WARN (furlough) notices to Pilots in the past affect your perception of job security at the Company?
“For a Company that prided itself on zero furloughs, I lost all respect. The “LUV” disappeared after my (WARN) notice (arrived).”
“Absolutely. I realized we saved money for the ‘war chest,’ but when it came down to it, I wouldn’t benefit from the cash on hand for (the good) times.”
“Yes. One of the reasons SWA was my #1 choice was a lack of furloughs. WARN notices severely diminished my view of the Company.”
“100% that was always the ace in the hole for SWA. I was willing to trade the less pay/benefits for job security.”
“Completely and absolutely it did. All the speak of ‘Southwest never furloughs’ is total crap. The Company has proven they will do it and I fully believe they will do it again, sadly.”
Any regrets after leaving?
“Should have left six months sooner.”
“My family and I put a lot of time, effort, money, and sacrifice into making this work. Extremely disappointed things were not as advertised.”
“My biggest regret I would have to say is the culture and people I gave up. Not the made-up deck party G.O. culture, but the employees and interactions with them at work every day.”
“I don’t have any as of yet. I’ve made a lot of great friends since being here and will miss a lot of people.”
What can we do to improve the new Pilot experience?
“You need an industry-leading contract or people will look elsewhere.”
“All the ‘culture’ talk is gimmicky. The Pilot group is great and that’s the culture that needs to be talked about. Not the Company.”
If you were here for the Christmas meltdown, did it affect your decision to leave SWA?
“I had already decided to leave by the Christmas meltdown, but it made it easier to leave seeing it.”
“To be fair, I had basically made my decision by then. That being said, the meltdown completely solidified my decision. I have major worries about the direction of the Company and the lack of leadership that continues to be shown by the CEO and on down. I absolutely see another meltdown happening. To be honest, it was the worst experience of my career and left an incredibly sour taste in my mouth and a bunch of my classmates. I know multiple Pilots who started updating their apps again after the meltdown.”
“Yes, it did. I think it shows a lack of infrastructure, and the fact that nothing was immediately done to adapt and prevent this again was unacceptable. It also showed how Southwest treats their employees and customers. It truly was embarrassing.”
“I was working during the meltdown. Flying at the regionals for the last six years, I’m no stranger to cancellations and meltdowns, but this one was unlike anything I’ve seen. It was scary honestly and it was embarrassing as well. But the part the scared me the most was the Company’s response afterwards. Acting like it was okay and Bob just saying he loved us over and over. Actions speak louder than words. The one thing I’ve heard since day one is, ‘We’ve always done things this way.’ If we aren’t able to adapt to how large we are now, how are we supposed to survive? If you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten before. Southwest needs to evolve, and I don’t know if that’s with different fleets or something else, but with all the opportunities for Pilots out there now, it’s tough to take the stagnant seniority here.”
From a 4.5 year departed: “I’m tired of giving blood, sweat, and tears for just another Company. Since SWA has become just another Company, I refuse to spend the next 30 years here wondering what it’s like to fly different types or all around the world. At the end of the day, SWA has really gotten away from the Company I was hired into and it’s such a great time in the industry to pursue my dream.”
Finally, a modern-day take on Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It:”
"My final words to a Southwest Assistant Chief Pilot were: “You know what? I’ve had enough of Southwest’s empty promises. I quit!”
I guess that will about cover the flybys.
The replies from the departed come as no surprise. And yet, despite publicly exclaiming that, “The real constraint (to growth) is Pilot hiring,” Bob Jordan continues to whistle past the graveyard while our most junior Pilots vote with their feet.
When will the slow trickle of departures turn to a torrent? Like a desert arroyo that can rapidly transform from a lazy meandering creek to a flash flood due to a distant thunderstorm inundating its catch basin, the Company has already seen the lightning in the distance, heard the rolling thunder, and the time to prepare for the deluge is already past. Yet despite the obvious warning signs, and SWAPA’s constant highlighting of them with factual data, the Company has chosen to hike upstream past the safe wide-open space of the flat arroyo into the vertiginous confines of a slot canyon. SWAPA has offered through Contract 2020 a safety line out of harm’s way, where Pilots once again look at Southwest as a career destination. Will the Company continue hiking toward the deafening roar? Or will it finally wise up and take the line? If it does not, we are already along for the ride.