September 15, 2022
Executive Chairman, Southwest Airlines
Editor-In-Chief, Air Transport World
The pandemic drastically altered consumer travel, creating a need for industry-wide change. While the industry has been on a good trajectory, the path back to normalcy post-pandemic has been less than clear.
During the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Aerospace Summit, Karen Walker, Editor-In-Chief of Air Transport World, led a conversation with Gary Kelly, Executive Chairman of Southwest Airlines. Kelly discussed the airline’s path back to travel in the post-pandemic world, as well as its focus on customer experience and sustainability.
Southwest Airlines Is Working to Return to Normal Post-Pandemic
2020 was a difficult year for the aviation industry as companies tried to navigate an altered way of life while adhering to new regulations and health and safety guidance. While many companies have overcome these challenges, the impact is still felt in present times.
“It was very messy going into the pandemic and, unfortunately, it's really messy coming out,” Kelly said. “There was a forced action in the spring of 2020, and now it's kind of a gradual return to normal life — and we're far from normalized yet. So, the airlines are not atypical in that regard.”
He added that 2021 was “more of a struggle… than I anticipated.”
However, according to Kelly, Southwest’s employment numbers have reached the same heights as pre-pandemic times, with roughly 65,000 employees.
“We've hired 10,000 people through the first half of 2022, compared to about 3,500 for the whole year of 2019,” Kelly said, noting that “it takes 65,000 people to fly fewer flights than what we had two years ago.”
The Airline Industry Has Encountered Challenges in Restarting Post-Pandemic
The pandemic caused lasting complications within the supply chain, as issues with staffing shortages, shifts in demand, inflation, and other challenges continue to have an impact.
“It's just fascinating to me how easy it is to turn things off and how hard it is to restart them,” Kelly said. “It's kind of like restarting the whole world. [While] a lot of those restarting pains are behind us, we still are having our own supply chain issues in terms of getting airplanes delivered.”
While the aviation industry feels the impact of these complications, airlines are hopeful that by the time they recuperate, so will the supply chain.
“We're not getting airplanes as fast as we would like, [but] we don't really need them yet… because we still don't have our staffing-flying ratio at a point where we can grow,” Kelly explained. “But next year, we will, and we’ll be hopeful to see Boeing getting caught up.”
Southwest Is Addressing the Need for Modernization Within the Industry
In a time when the industry is trying to regain its footing, it can be hard to focus efforts toward goals regarding modernization. However, as Kelly states, “the modernization need is absolutely there.”
“We need to aspire to have the most efficient air traffic control system in the world,” Kelly described. “For us, it's an ecosystem. Every flight [and customer] is touched by the federal government. So, TSA remarkably has been doing a phenomenal job, I think, across the system. There are definitely opportunities there and a lot of work to do.”
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