Southwest Airlines just made a twisted admission that'll infuriate customers

It didn't have to be this way, but everyone booking for the holidays had better beware.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer
Side of a Southwest Airlines plane

Coulda, woulda, shoulda?

Southwest Airlines/Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk

Do you find yourself breathing a little more deeply these days?

The evenings are getting ever darker, the pressure of work ever more intractable.

You need to be somewhere different. You need to experience different people, different places, and different smells.

You want, in essence, to get away.

Yet cheap, convenient flights aren't so easy to find. 

Airlines see no slackening of demand. Their executives are salivating at the image of packed flights and even the temptation of overbooking.

This will surely make passengers wonder, as they desperately try to find a holiday flight -- and then the money to pay for it -- why isn't holiday flying quite what it used to be?

Helpfully, Southwest Airlines decided to tell them.

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Well, not exactly tell passengers, but tell the financial community why Southwest isn't making even more money than it already is.

As it presented its very fine third-quarter results -- record revenues, a record number of passengers -- the airline's CEO offered a little nuance. Speaking to CNBC, he mused, in an if only kind of way, that his airline wasn't able to offer, say, a record number of flights.

In the fourth quarter, he said, the airline is "looking for up revenues again on even down capacity."

I reached for my abacus and worked out that this might just mean flights will cost more. How else will the airline make more money from fewer seats?

When asked where the problem really lay, Jordan was succinct: "It's really pilots."

Was he blaming the pilots -- who aren't so happy with Southwest currently -- for the lack of more capacity? Goodness, no. He was blaming the lack of more pilots for the lack of more capacity.

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"We are short of pilots to fly all our aircraft," he said. "Our classes are full, we are getting pilots, we're getting great pilots, but our training centers are full."

But how long might this situation last? "We won't catch the aircraft until, probably, late 2023," Jordan admitted. So this pilot shortage may not have been a pure pandemic thing, but something that'll last rather longer?

What does that mean in terms of Southwest's capacity to offer seats to the desperate who just want to get away?

"If we had all the pilots we needed," said Jordan, "We could probably fly 5 to 8% more ASMs (available seat miles)."

Perhaps you well up in sympathy. You realize that hiring has been difficult over the last year or two. And naturally, I want to well up with you.

I merely have a single thought woodpeckering inside my head.

When the pandemic struck, airlines begged for our money -- via the government, that is. They received tens of billions in bailout funds.

One of their next steps was to offer buyouts to staff -- including, what do you know, pilots. It was clear that headcount was being reduced. Yet the bailout money was supposed to keep the band together. It was supposed to keep airlines fully staffed for the inevitable post-pandemic rush.

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You're experiencing that woodpeckering too, aren't you? You're imagining that some of this bailout money may have gone to paying for staff buyouts.

Naturally, I wouldn't dream of such cynical logic. However, the House Oversight Committee recently asked the Treasury Department whether, oh no, airlines may have used your money to get rid of headcount. Including pilot headcount.

Oh, you know that passengers can't do anything about all this. Equally, passengers know how enraging cancellations -- and higher fares -- have been over the last long while.

I wonder how many people's plans will be altered specifically because Southwest can't increase its capacity by 5 to 8%.

I hope you've already made your holiday plans. And please, look forward to next year. Maybe, just maybe, supply will meet demand.


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