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Airline jobs have always been easy to fill, but carriers can’t get enough workers

“I don’t think a year ago anyone could anticipate that we would be here looking for so many workers.”

Southwest Airlines jets parked at their gates at Baltimore Washington International Airport in Baltimore.
Southwest Airlines jets parked at their gates at Baltimore Washington International Airport in Baltimore.Read moreCharles Dharapak / AP

Southwest Airlines has never had problems recruiting employees because good salaries, hefty bonuses, flight benefits, and regular accolades as one of the nation’s best places to work were always enough.

But now Greg Muccio and the recruiting team at the Dallas-based airline are working harder to get good applicants and, when those resumes come in, make sure they keep them.

“After 24 hours of radio silence with a candidate, they are going to make the assumption that they aren’t a candidate any longer and move on,” said Muccio, Southwest’s director of talent acquisition. “Basically, every day by 3:30 you are going to hear from my team, even if it’s to tell you there is no news but you are still in the running.”

Once among the country’s most coveted companies to work for, airlines are suddenly struggling to find workers at the same time they need thousands of new people to keep up with the new realities of travel. Despite ups and downs, the jobs are among the most stable and turnover is low thanks to largely union workforces that have regularly guaranteed pay raises and cost-of-living adjustments.

In March 2020, Southwest employees took home an extra $11,190 on average in profit-sharing bonuses, although there were no bonuses the next year due to heavy losses from the COVID-19 pandemic. The median Southwest worker in 2019 had an average compensation of more than $101,000, including pay and benefits.

But, oh, how things have changed in 18 months. Across the travel industry, airlines are competing hard for new talent after shedding workers for the first year of the pandemic.

Southwest Airlines is in the middle of a hiring push to get 5,200 new workers by November, hopefully providing some relief to tired employees before the holiday season. Fort Worth-based American Airlines, the dominant carrier at Philadelphia International Airport, has openings for about 4,000 jobs across the company in addition to the long-term need to hire thousands of pilots in the coming years to keep up with retirements.

Delta is hiring 3,000 flight attendants and JetBlue needs 2,500 flight attendants. Airlines have turned to recruitment bonuses of $300 to $500 in an industry where it was never hard to persuade friends to come work with you.

Airlines are among the largest employers in the North Texas region, with 30,000 workers at American Airlines and 10,800 at Southwest, including thousands more who work at airports or for one of the dozens of other airlines here.

“I don’t think a year ago anyone could anticipate that we would be here looking for so many workers,” said Thomas Rajan, vice president of global talent and total rewards at American Airlines.

It is a problem, particularly for airlines that ran into big problems this summer when the travel season got bumpy and there weren’t enough extra pilots, flight attendants, and other workers to keep operations running smoothly.

Both American and Southwest went through long stretches with hundreds of cancellations due to pilots and flight attendants being out of position and out of hours after weather events.

After complaints from union leaders, both American and Southwest said they would reduce flying schedules in the fall.

Workers may be reluctant to apply for airline jobs for the same reason they aren’t flocking to retail and restaurants, said aviation consultant George Hamlin.

“Some people are legitimately worried about going out into the world and getting COVID,” Hamlin said. “If one of your perks is free travel, there just aren’t as many people that want that perk right now.”

But getting those new hires on board and into airports will be key for the holiday travel season, a busy time when nearly every airline employee is expected to work.

“Airlines essentially have two months, but who knows what will happen between now and then with the virus,” he said.

At Southwest, the biggest need for workers is on the front lines at airports and in call centers, Muccio said. Those are essentially the same workers who are tough to find for restaurants, retailers and other customer service jobs where shortages are rampant.

Southwest raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour this summer to attract front-line workers and even behind-the-scenes employees, such as ramp agents who help load luggage onto planes.

“There’s a really large group, over nine million people, that just flat-out have not come back into the workforce, and that’s really heavy on folks that work hourly jobs,” Muccio said. “But there are challenges on the professional side, too, and the challenge is that some companies are seeing a lot of internal turnover and people not staying for as long.”

Southwest Airlines still gets a lot of applicants for jobs, Muccio said. But where it may have received 28 applications for every job opening before the pandemic, now the company is getting 14. And often by the time those applications are reviewed and contact is made, the list has already shrunk.

Southwest and other companies are actively recruiting mechanics — jobs that are essential during peak travel periods.

Emilee Mayfield, who works with recruiting firm HSGI Inc., said skilled mechanics and technicians are getting sign-on bonuses, higher pay, and even paid lodging to jump to new companies or take short-term and long-term contract jobs.

“There is a desperate hunt for mechanics and technicians,” Mayfield said.

For the first time in more than a decade, aviation recruiter Sharon Ballgae said she got a request from a major regional airline to help find pilots. It’s a rare request because airlines usually have their own large recruiting departments that draw from flight schools and military bases for pilots.

Ballgae said airlines have long known there was going to be a need for new pilots. American Airlines will see more than 7,000 pilots retire between 2021 and 2030 due to mandatory age limits set by the Federal Aviation Administration. There is also growing demand from start-up foreign airlines in need of experienced pilots.

American lost an additional 1,000 pilots during the pandemic through early retirements, speeding up the need to hire as passenger demand picks up.

“There have been ups and downs for flight crews,” Ballgae said. “Some people don’t want to deal with what’s happening on a plane now when you have to take personal defense classes to handle people upset over masks.”

The pay has also spiked for pilots to jump from airlines to corporate jobs or charter services, rising from about $125,000 a year a decade ago to more than $175,000, Ballgae said.

But not all jobs are hard to fill. Flight attendant jobs are still getting high interest, said Rajan at American Airlines. Perhaps that’s because of the frequent travel and ability to set favorable schedules.

American Airlines opened up hiring for 1,000 flight attendant jobs and got more than 27,000 applications. Southwest got similar interest for the first new class of flight attendants it’s hired since the pandemic. Both airlines have reduced the number of flight attendants on staff through voluntary buyouts during the pandemic.

“It’s still somewhat of a glamour position,” Muccio said.