Southwest Airlines Co. will reduce by half the amount of experience prospective pilots must have flying jet or turboprop aircraft as it accelerates hiring this year.
Applicants will need to have 500 hours of “turbine time” starting Feb. 7, down from the 1,000 hours previously required, the airline confirmed Saturday. The change, outlined in a Feb. 2 memo to pilots, “will allow more highly-skilled aviators the opportunity to pursue a career at Southwest Airlines,” a spokeswoman said Saturday.
The U.S. airline industry has been hobbled by a pilot shortage that intensified during and coming out of the pandemic. Most major carriers continue to hire aviators even after securing enough to fly current schedules, leaving a shortfall at regional airlines that has kept some aircraft grounded. Southwest is adding a net 1,700 pilots this year, after hiring about 1,000 in 2022.
The change “will ensure we can continue to be selective in hiring pilots who demonstrate Southwest’s values and have relevant experience across the board,” said the memo from three Southwest executives.
The new Southwest standard focusing on experience in high-performance aircraft doesn’t violate federal regulations, which only specify the requirement for flying time in any type of plane. Federal Aviation Administration rules require that a pilot have at least 1,500 hours of flight time, with slightly lower thresholds if people have military experience or certain academic credit.
Southwest said in a statement that it hasn’t changed its flight operations training and “all current and future first officer candidates must pass all elements of the curriculum prior to flying for Southwest.”
Pilots generally have worked at regional airlines to build enough additional flying hours to apply at larger carriers.
Southwest has been hampered by a pilot training bottleneck that’s left it unable to fully utilize all of its aircraft. Along with other carriers, it’s expanding to take advantage of travel demand that has surged since the spring of 2021 as the pandemic waned.
“This is to address the shrinking pool of pilots interested in coming to Southwest,” said Casey Murray, head of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association. “They’re having problems hiring them, they’re also having trouble keeping them.”
The carrier is “having no trouble hiring pilots” and no trouble filling its training classes, Chief Executive Officer Bob Jordan said on a Jan. 26 conference call.
The requirement change was reported earlier by The Wall Street Journal.
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