Why Southwest?

By: John Wims, admin of SWA New Hire Pilots private facebook group

Let me first start out by saying this piece is intended as a source of information for those interested in potentially flying for Southwest, for those pilots who would be a good fit here and just don’t know what they don’t know about this particular company. This is not a “Southwest is the best” and here’s why they’re better than the other companies. I don’t know enough about the other companies to make an accurate comparison. I’m sure each of the majors is great in its own specific way, it just depends on your personal variables as to what’s best for you. There seem to be a lot of misconceptions, rumors, questions, “fake news” out there in various outlets of social media concerning Southwest, so hopefully this piece can clarify some of those as well. A couple of quick examples I’ve personally witnessed, “Southwest is a Super-Regional. You fly 6 legs a day.” I’ve averaged 2.7 legs per day in 3 years. “I know Southwest gets paid less…” With our new contract, we get 15% B Fund contribution and by the time I’m eligible to upgrade to Captain, we will be among the highest if not the highest narrow body pay rates at $282/hr ($197/hr for FOs). “There is a 15-year upgrade at Southwest”, after our most recent vacancy bid the junior most captain in upgrade is a late 2008 hire. He is currently 1800 pilots ahead of me, and we are currently upgrading 50 per month.  Doing the math, that’s 36 months from now when I’ll technically be able to choose to upgrade. That would be a six-year upgrade in my particular case. That is including the fact that we recently retired a big percentage of our fleet (-300s) in a fairly small period of time. As we slowly get more MAX8s here (https://www.fool.com/investing/southwest-airlines-just-ordered-40-more-737), the upgrade numbers COULD go down. Again, this is not an article with the intention of stating Southwest is the best. This is for those out there like me who don’t know what they don’t know and are at least interested in working for Southwest.

A brief background on me to help setup the opinion piece, I am your run-of-the-mill, average, everyday C-17 and 737 pilot. I grew up as a military kid and spent most of my life in the garden spots of Army Town, USA. I don’t have any family legacy ties to a particular company or to a particular region of the country. I have a few thousand hours of flying long range, international missions to 50+ countries and 5 continents. I have approximately 1000 hours of night/NVG time. So, why does this matter? It doesn’t, really. Simply put, it is just a reference to show that I didn’t grow up in Texas dreaming of drinking Wild Turkey with Herb Kelleher flying the Texas Two Step between Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston, and that I do have some frame for reference for long haul international and flying on the back side of the clock.

I’ve simplified my list why I chose to come to Southwest (and stay here), to seven reasons. Hopefully, some of these resonate with a few who are still looking for the right choice for themselves and their families (if applicable), and offer a little perspective. All of these are subjective, and your results may vary. 

  1. QOL. This is my highest priority in my aviation career, more than the rest of the deciding factors combined. How much control do I have over my life? How much time do I dedicate to work versus all the other things I have in my life besides work? Am I stuck in a rigid flying schedule that’s immovable but pays me the best? Can I fly trips that allow me to catch every game or recital I want? Am I spending more time at work, getting to work, or getting back home than I actually am at home? 
  2. Location. Locations of our soon to be 11 domiciles were a big deal to me, I knew that my family wasn’t going to enjoy the airline lifestyle if I was commuting nearly as much as we would if I could just drive to work. Commuting vs domicile living is basically two different jobs in and of themselves. After our last active duty assignment in Altus, Oklahoma, my wife gave me a list of places she WANTED to live, not just where she could make it work. That helped me really focus my job search to a few companies. Long story short, I am now Denver based and we have really enjoyed living in Colorado. DEN is currently SWA’s fastest growing base (1050 total pilots by 2020), it has big expansion plans (14 more gates, 205 daily flights increasing to 250, west coast version of BWI planned, increase in international routes) and our seniority list is VERY junior on the low end of the list (3 months after training). 
  3. Schedule Flexibility. I haven’t worked anywhere else, but I’ve been told that our schedule flexibility is among the best in the industry. What does that mean exactly? As a simple example, I’ll use my monthly schedule or “line”.  Southwest has basically two different schedules, AMs or PMs. I prefer PMs (better for my family’s schedule and DEN traffic). Typically, I have a 2 PM report and I’ll fly to about 11 PM (Mountain Time Zone). That’s not always the case, but it’s very typical of my schedule. With my 55% seniority, I can typically hold a We-Th-Fr PM schedule. At face value, that means I work 12 days per month and I am home 22 nights. My average line has been around 96 TFP. I get home around 11:30 on Friday night and I’m done for the week, only having been gone 2 nights. The flexibility piece comes in when my personal schedule for next month invariably changes. There’s a dental appointment for the kids on Wednesday afternoon, so I’ll trade with either the company or another pilot to slide right or left. There’s a concert at Red Rocks Friday night, ok I’ll either break up my 3-day trip to same-day turns or 2-day trips, or I’ll trade it left. I don’t like the ATL overnight, I’ll swap that out with a trip that stays in SAN instead. There are more specific details to it, but between trading with the company (ELITT) or other pilots (TTGA), I have never flown my originally assigned schedule in my three years here. Lately, I’ve been able to trade all my three-day trips into turns, so I can be home every night to help out with kids. I like working only 12 days per month, but some months I want to make a little more money. So, I’ll pick up extra flying from other pilots or from the company at straight pay. I don’t play the premium game (1.5x TFP) much outside of a few select months, because at my seniority the chances are lower and I don’t like being tied to my computer that much for all the open time alerts. As an example, with my We-Th-Fr schedule, I’ll pick up a Cabo turn on Monday a few times in the month. That puts me at 115 TFP for the month, I’ve now only worked 14-15 days for the month, and I’m still home 22 nights. That is just my specific example of how our schedule flexibility works here. 
  4. Vacation. We have traditional line bidding here at SWA, rather than PBS. I won’t get into the details on which one is better and why, that’s a whole different article, but from what I’ve learned in my time here…SWAPA and the pilot group will likely NEVER go to PBS. They currently have it valued at an EXTRA $50-70K annually (that’s pretty conservative) for a 12 yr captain, to maintain our current scheduling system. During contract negotiations, the company will likely always ask for PBS and the union will likely never budge. A pilot here with 18 years of employment will get 5 weeks of paid vacation, which combined with our line bidding will net him/her 10-12 weeks of vacation. Any trip that touches a week of vacation gets dropped with pay. And the quick-thinking pilots here have found a way to get their entire summer off by bidding heavy paying weekend lines, having all their trips pulled, and during their weeks in between actual vacation weeks they pick up premium during our busy summer schedule. If you wonder how some Southwest pilots can pull down over $600K last year (captains) and $250K (FOs) looking at our “hourly” pay rates, our vacation rules play a big part in that. 
  5. Financial. Southwest has a strong financial history. It’s true that we have never furloughed before, not saying we won’t ever have to but we haven’t done in 40+ years, and we are one of the only companies that talk publicly about how proud of that we are. After 9/11, I heard we got close, but between Herb keeping his word with the new hire classes to keep getting a paycheck and a big group of fellow pilots jumping out on mil leave to help make room, not one pilot lost their job. We have turned a profit for 40+ years. (southwest-airlines-40-consecutive-years-of-profits) We have never declared bankruptcy. We have the second biggest market cap in the passenger carrier segment of the industry. We have the 4th lowest debt total while having the 4th biggest fleet size in the entire industry. We grow every year (sometimes extremely frustratingly slowly and conservatively), but the thing that makes me really positive about Southwest’s financial situation is that we’ve done all this with a relatively small network. We currently only have one airframe and 90% of our operation is domestic. We have about 14 international locations and have only flown international for the past 4 years. There’s a lot of room to grow within the international market, (southwest-airlines-confirms-its-intl-ambitions)  plus the likely possibility we will get a new airframe. If the international growth can be done the right way, (something-big-just-happened-at-southwest-airlines.aspx), there’s a lot of potential for the company already with the second biggest market cap and very little debt. (seekingalpha.com/southwest-airlines-strategically-positioned-long-term-success)
  6. Pay. We don’t get paid hourly like everyone else. We get paid by a different unit, called the Trip For Pay (TFP). The TFP is a complex topic that will take another article to truly explain in detail, but the oversimplified answer is that the TFP is the best type of pay unit for the type of flying we can do here. It’s based on 243 NM of distance covered, which helped with the old-school Texas Two Step routes we flew in 25 minutes. Why do we keep using the TFP? SWAPA has done the math and the way our contract works, pilots get paid the highest of distance covered, hours flown, or duty rig every flight. So that’s why they’ve elected to keep it, it always maximizes pay for the pilots. A few sites have done a decent job of converting our TFP to hourly rates, at about a 1.15 ratio. Our average monthly min guarantee is around 88 TFP. I’ve never seen 88 TFPs built into my line except for February. My monthly line averages 96 TFP built in. I’d estimate an average SWA commuter routinely hits 95-96 TFP per month. A typical SWA domicile pilot hits 105-115 TFP per month. There are heavy hitters who routinely hit 140-160 TFP per month, playing the premium game. I have a bigger emphasis on family time than some of them, much lower seniority, and I also have a monthly mil leave requirement to work around, so I very rarely hit 150 TFP in a month. Do we get paid less at SWA? Hard to say… I don’t compare W2s at mythical, hypothetical pilot bars. I don’t know very many people that fly the standard baseline numbers at Southwest, or any company for that matter, so I don’t think there’s an easy answer. A pilot that hustles at Southwest makes more than a pilot that takes it easy at another company, and the opposite is definitely true. The concept of who gets paid more is fluid and very situational dependent on the individual pilot’s work style and preferences. 
  7. Culture. The concept of culture is hard to define and put into a quantifiable date point that is simple to chart in excel spreadsheets. For those looking to make a transition into this industry, comparable data points in a spreadsheet are extremely easy to use, so this fuzzy idea of culture can sometimes be overlooked. When I talk about the culture here at Southwest, the last thing I’m referring to is “fun”. We’ve been talked about being the “fun” airline and to be honest, I don’t know what that means. It’s not like we have “fun” briefs, fly “fun” visuals or ILS’s, or do “fun” walk arounds. The Flight Attendants and Ground Ops personnel are known for funny announcements, random dance parties, and positive attitudes. My paycheck and 401K love all these things, including our reputation for positive customer service. As far as pilots are concerned, we aren’t encouraged to be “fun”. We are just allowed and encouraged to be ourselves. If you want to make a funny PA, do it. If you want to wear your favorite college team on your ID lanyard, go ahead. If you want to wear a F16 tie tac on your American Flag tie, go crazy. If you want to wear the hat, wear it; if not, welcome to the club. If you want to bring kids up front during boarding and take pictures with them or give them high fives, good on you. All the wheelchair pushing, kid waving, funny quips stuff is just people being themselves. Within the pilot group, the culture here is better than I expected but what I had secretly hoped for. Probies don’t buy beers, ever. Very rarely even as a 3 yr FO do I buy my own beers. If somebody makes a coffee run, it’s “I’m getting an orange mocha frappuccino, you want one too?”. One Christmas, I put my trip up for trade with the comment that all I’m looking for is a SEA overnight so I could see my family at Grandma’s. A random DEN pilot texted me and traded me his SEA trip just because, nothing expected in return. A different example, I lost a good friend/classmate/squadron mate and was hoping to host a large group of friends at my house for his funeral nearby, the problem is the funeral was scheduled on a day that I had randomly picked up an extra trip (out of domicile too because I was going to be in CA that day anyway). I called my Chief Pilot and explained the entire situation, he had the trip pulled (a little bit of hassle for him because he had to coordinate with the OAK Chief Pilot) immediately, very little questions asked. They bent over backwards for me in this particular situation, and a few others. Does every airline have its own culture? Sure. I don’t know enough about them to make anything other than outside observations, and like previously mentioned, that’s not what this article is about. Is the Southwest culture a real thing? In my experience, that has been absolutely true and I personally put a high value on that hard to define “data point” in my nonexistent Excel spreadsheet.

Is Southwest the best? No, not for everyone. However, it is for some, absolutely. I wrote this piece after reading some great articles about the industry in general and a few comparisons between companies. I realized I did not know everything about a particular legacy company that the author worked for, but I also realized that other people may not know everything about Southwest. If I could highlight a few basic concepts as to why I chose to work here, maybe that could help out a few others out there on social media trying to filter the facts from the fiction. Each company out there has plenty of positives that attract various types of pilots and I hope to read similar articles on why people work at their specific companies