Pilots at Southwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines say pilot exhaustion is on the rise, and they’re pressing the airlines treat fatigue and the mistakes that result as a safety risk.
“Fatigue, both acute and cumulative, has become Southwest Airlines’ number-one safety threat,” the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, or SWAPA, told airline executives in a letter this week. The causes, the pilots say, include cancellation chaos caused by severe weather, and climbing demand for air travel testing the mettle of still-recovering airlines.
Passenger numbers are about 90% of 2019 levels this month, according to Transportation Security Administration data, but major US passenger airlines are about 3,000 employees short from that time period, according to Bureau of Transportation Statistics data. Thousands of pilots retired — either by choice or aging out at 65 — during the pandemic, and research presented by the Regional Airline Association says 2,000 pilots reach mandatory retirement age this year. Mandatory retirement numbers are expected to grow over the next 6 years.
Southwest executives identified staffing as one of their key priorities this year, setting a goal of hiring 8,000 new employees. Forty percent of those will be flight crews. More hiring alone will not solve the fatigue issues, SWAPA president Casey Murray says.