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Southwest Says Labor Shortages Could Lead to It Cutting Flights in 2022

By Kelly Hoggan


One of the negative consequences of the coronavirus pandemic is the continuing labor shortage seen in many different industries, including among airlines. This last summer saw several carriers, including Southwest Airlines, cancel flights due to a lack of staff. To adjust, airlines like Southwest are in the midst of a hiring spree to try to prevent flight cancellations in 2022 due to such staffing shortfalls.   

Labor shortages could make for turbulence when it comes to airline staffing efforts.

Airline Labor Shortages 

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, several airlines such as Southwest were forced to cut staff any way they could, including workers in ground support functions that included ticketing agents and baggage handlers. Reasons for why some employees eventually left their airlines for good also vary. These include that thousands of workers took buyouts and extended leaves of absence, with the end result being that Southwest, at least, was left with a hole in its staffing model.  

To regain staff, the carrier implemented a hiring program with the goal of attracting 5,000 new workers through the end of this year. It’s also cut its flight schedule for the remainder of 2021 in an attempt toavoid additional service problems.  

Recapturing Lost Business 

To recapture lost business and make up for revenue shortfalls owing to the coronavirus, Southwest and other airlines had implemented an ambitious 2021 summer schedule. Unfortunately, staffing shortages soon appeared, something that intensified already existing operational issues, such as flight delays caused by bad weather throughout the summer. Hundreds of summer schedule flight cancellations, delays, and other flight disruptions at Southwest left many customers in a lurch.  

Issues in 2022 

Bob Jordan, the airline’s incoming CEO -- who’s been with Southwest for 33 years -- is vowing that the carrier won’t repeat the mistakes of 2021. He’s been looking at the airline’s March 2022 flight schedule – its first big test of the new year -- with an eye towards ensuring the air carrier will be able to meet it. If Southwest can’t, however, Jordan has already said a modification to the schedule may have to be implemented.  

Hiring Through 2022 

In addition to the 5,000 workers Southwest expects to add to its employee rolls in 2021, the carrier hopes to add 8,000 more in 2022. As the airline is finding out, however, hiring employees at present has been achallenge, and competition for workers has been extremely tough. Many employers – including restaurants and retailers as well as airlines – are on the lookout for new workers and are offering higher pay, hiring bonuses, retention and referral bonuses, plus higher pay for certain localities.  

Riding the Storm Out 

Southwest is offering all of the above hiring incentives, including starting pay at $15 per hour plus a wide range of benefits. CEO Jordan also notes that with labor shortages pushing wages higher, the employee market may not be done with wage increases, either. Lingering concerns on the part of prospective workers as to the coronavirus, plus relatively generous long-term unemployment benefits and the expectation of additional stimulus payments by the federal government are also adding toSouthwest’s problems. For 2022, the best strategy for the carrier and its competitors may be to buckle in, hold tight, and try to ride out the storm in the labor market. 

Kelly Hoggan, Founder and CEO of H4 Solutions, previously served as assistant administrator for operations at the Transportation Security Administration. In that role, he was responsible for aircraft and checkpoint security operations at the nation's 450-plus commercial airports.

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