Riding The Pilot Shortage Pony, Southwest Pilots Ink A Generous Deal


Boeing’s 747 entered service in 1970 when pilot salaries were so high people joked that the signature hump atop the forward fuselage was designed in so that the captains could sit on their wallets. Based on terms of a new contract yesterday (Dec. 20), Southwest Airlines (SWA) might need to send its fleet of 737s to the body shop for a 747-esque resto-mod. As announced by the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), salaries will increase by 50% over five years for what amounts to a cumulative $12 billion dollar agreement for SWA’s 10,000-plus pilots.

The SWA deal rivals recent pilot-salary agreements at United Airlines and American Airlines, as the ongoing pilot shortage continues to provide leverage for pilots’ unions.

The SWA pay hikes will come in increments over the course of the current collective bargaining agreement, which runs through 2028. Pilots will realize an immediate raise of 29.15% upon ratification of the agreement, followed up by 4% annual increases over the next three years and a 3.25% increase in 2028. There is also enhanced financial protection for crew members who are unable to fly due to fatigue. Pilots will vote on the deal on Jan. 22.

SWAPA President Casey Murray said in a written statement: “We are finally at a place where we think the value of our pilots and their productivity is being realized. Our pilots and Southwest Airlines customers deserve security and confidence in our future, and we believe that this contract achieves that.”

That could be a reference to countering a practice known as “résumé washing,” whereby new pilots would apply for positions at Southwest with an eye toward moving on to higher-paying airlines after a short tenure with the Dallas-based carrier. That bypasses agreements the more established airlines traditionally have with their regional affiliates to draw new-hire pilots from their ranks after they accrue enough hours.

Southwest chief operating officer Andrew Watterson said in a Dec. 13 interview that pilots “use us as a premeditated way station. They come to Southwest, get hired, trained, spend six months and then they flip their résumé and apply somewhere else.” With pay scales now on a more even keel, the incentive to move on to greener pastures could be far less enticing.

Mark Phelps
Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.


  1. Whatever happened to airline pilots who did their job because they love to fly? How much money is enough? Who will pay for all this, especially in light of the new SWA policy of gifting seats to large passengers’ overage? This is why I now prefer to drive.

    • It has been evident to anyone employed in the business that airlines treat their pilots and flight attendants as disposable assets, hiring until they fire, and expecting pay cuts to stave off bankruptcy, then awarding themselves fat bonuses.
      No loyalty is given, none expected and the shoe is now on the other foot. It’s just business.
      Walk in the shoes of a crew on a four or five day domestic trip, built around a commutable schedule (ie: late start, early finish), and – while we’ll agree there are far worse occupations – flying is very much a job.

        • I take it from your patently rhetorical question that you finally understand that it isn’t.

          Therefore, why would you expect a pilot to do their job because they love to fly, any more than you would expect an auto worker to do their job because they like welding. Or a lawywer working for cheap… because they like lawyering.

          Glad you figured it out.

    • I love to fly as much as anyone else. But…. I endured the static industry through Gulf War 1, the post 9/11 furlough, the bankruptcies and mergers.

      In reality I see my peers who graduated as engineers and such with lifetime earnings that still may exceed mine. To be honest, I’m not having any remorse in collecting my paycheck.

  2. I think the “Love to fly” thing started to die after 9-11. It is a hard grind for many pilots now and expected perfection every day wears out your soul.

  3. I’m glad pilots get paid a living wage. Less churn = Less Burn .. I hope.

    Meanwhile, if one doesn’t like commercial flying, you can always drive.. or take the Greyhound. The market will determine whether pricing is accurately reflecting demand soon enough.

  4. I retired in 2004. I put my final years salary in an inflation tool and low and behold, my buying power in 2004 is just about equal to the new payscales at all the majors with these new contracts.
    They, at the end of these contracts, will be making essentially what we were making in 2004. Looking at that picture the piloting industry is about where they were 20 years ago.
    Well deserved, but not anything less than deserved.
    Oh, I loved every minute then and I still fly regularly and after every takeoff I say, “God, it’s great to be aloft”.

  5. And yet ANOTHER article about pilots and the pilot shortage. When is there going to be any articles on the severe lack of A&P mechanics???? You think pilot shortage is bad……..no one talks about or even mentions the dismal numbers for mechanics and the amount of mechanics retiring and the lack of incoming mechanics.

    Keep pushing the “Pilot shortage” issue and when there are NO mechanics to service or fix the airplanes at the gate, only then will people get the full magnitude of what’s really happening to aviation and especially in the GA sector.

  6. Was this written as an elementary school writing project in journalism? What a HACK!

    “Based on terms of a new contract yesterday (Dec. 20), Southwest Airlines (SWA) might need to send its fleet of 737s to the body shop for a 747-esque resto-mod.”

    Top CA rates at Southwest in the new contract are below Delta A321NEO rates both of which are substantially below 777 and 330 rates.

    Delta set a bar for wages with their contract. That bar was below their inflation adjusted wages prior to their merger. The same is true for AA, UA and SWA. Additionally, I’m not accounting for the lost monetary benefits of Delta pilot’s pension.

    Do some back of envelope math. Pilots are only paid from door close to door open. But they are at work 15 days a month 12 months a year. At $400,000/year, that’s about $100/hr. The majority of 121 pilots make half of that or less.

    Many of these pilots spent decades and dollars to get to where they are. The 7 years from baggage handler to 767 CA is an outlier. A common statement is “that captain deserves what he earns. He has 150-250 people’s lives in his hands.” True. But twice a year he has to risk his livelihood to an AME and FAA medical and twice a year to a company check pilot or FAA inspector.

  7. I think the NC gave up on full retro at the new rates, but the “calculator” isn’t published yet. Even with a substantial raise, that could be a deal-breaker because it incentivizes the company to drag their feet again in just a few years when this process starts over. 2.5% raises during negotiations won’t keep up with inflation. The companies inability to implement the new contract in a timely fashion is indicative of their continued lack of investment in technology and the bit-twiddlers needed on payroll to make it happen. If I was a young pup in the Air Force, I’d stay there in the cockpit as long as possible and leave dealing with the plethora of entitled p-ass-engers in back to a post-retirement gig.

  8. My hope is that the real unsung heroes, the flight attendants, get a substantial raise since they are the ones who deal with the passengers, some of whom are extremely nasty and unruly.

  9. Hey Kent, you get what you negotiate. Pilots are worth every penny. After 23 years of no pay raise at AA, it was long overdue….. and I still love to fly. Merry Christmas and a healthy, safe and prosperous New Year to all!

  10. Just a lowly ex-air charter pilot here who never did airline flying but those who do earn every penny. “Love to fly” is one thing , but being away from home half the year and having your career on the line with every flight, every competency check and every medical isn’t easy.

    Add to that dealing with the TSA, FAA, crazed passengers and now questionable ATC abilities and airline work is more stressful than ever with its glamor and glory days a faded, misty eyed memory.

    I salute all the men and women out there putting in the long hours, dedication and duty to keep Americans flying safely.

  11. It takes $1.30 today to buy what $1 bought at the start of SWAPA’s last contract.

    They are due at least this TA value.

    We are just tires and brakes, to the company. The RLA forces us all to fly under expired contracts during negotiations. This is unlike the NLRB rules.

    Retroactive pay or a signing bonus NEVER makes one whole, even before tax.

    Liking you job is a double-edged sword, with no grip.

  12. Take a picture of the pay rates and frame it for posterity. The airlines pushed the whole “no college degree needed” message hard. This wasn’t out of desperation to fill flight decks. It was to attract a caliber of applicant who knows they couldn’t qualify for any job that pays even half of the current rates. One extended downturn and the airlines have the leverage to slash their pilot wages with the captive pilots more than willing to take “half a loaf” or even less rather than go back to 7-Eleven. The flood of new pilots won’t risk losing the best job they’ll ever have by defending their contract.