Bob Jordan took over as CEO, the sixth in the airline’s history, on February 1, about seven months after former CEO Gary C. Kelly announced his retirement. Prior to that, he spent more than 30 years with Southwest in 15 different roles ranging from computer programmer, a role he originated, to director of travel agency accounting.
Speaking Thursday at the ASTA Global Convention in San Francisco, Jordan said “it’s a joy a privilege to be able to be in a role for a company that I love,” despite being a “reluctant CEO.”
“A lot of people aspire to be in this job for their entire career…I’ve always enjoyed the job…but I wouldn’t say I’ve ever been career-focused,” he said. “When the company you like asks you to do a job, you get up and do it.”
The South West is still facing post-pandemic challenges, but things are looking up.
According to Jordan, Southwest is now staffed at the same level it was before the pandemic after months of heavy hiring. Currently, the company is hiring at a rate of 1,500 people per month, including 13,200 over the past 12 months and 11,000 year to date. By comparison, 7,000 a year was a pre-pandemic high.
The issue for Southwest, and for so many of its competitors in the aviation industry, is the difficulty in finding and training pilots, a position that is obviously crucial to its operations.
According to Helane Becker, a longtime airline analyst who spoke to Yahoo in late 2021, the industry may need 35,000 to 40,000 new pilots over the next decade in order to offset retirements and keep pace with travel demands. The industry is now tasked with finding and training those pilots, a group that will be absolutely crucial for the industry to not only thrive, but continue to expand.
“We are not there with our pilots,” he said. “The limiter is capacity – we have limited capacity to train our pilots … that’s the issue now.”
More Engagement with the Travel Trade
Jordan was the only airline CEO to appear on stage at the Global Convention this week, which is a long way for an airline like Southwest to come. Southwest had historically taken different paths to success than other carriers, including not reporting its bookings through ARC.
“We had a long thought … a long way that we weren’t going to participate in most of the standard ways of doing things in general,” he said.
The past decade of growth in the Southwest, combined with a rapidly changing travel landscape, has him rethinking things.
“At a certain point you become bigger … you have to have a willingness to challenge our assumptions,” he said. Part of that was a trend toward business travel with Southwest Business, a new section of the airline that debuted in 2019.
The corporation has been stuck at leisure in the post-pandemic recovery not only for Southwest, but for the entire airline industry and the larger travel industry as a whole. For Southwest, leisure business for summer 2022 is already 20% ahead of the same period in 2019, but that doesn’t mean corporate travel is dead.
“Whether it’s the theme or not, you learn that when someone says ‘it’s over forever, it’s changed forever,’ that’s when it changes again,” Jordan said. “Business-to-business is lagging behind [leisure] but it is still recovered. Will we ever get back to 100%? It’s hard to predict.”
But, more importantly for advisers attending the ASTA Global Convention, it also includes a growing reach into the travel trade, a part of its business that now accounts for just under 50% of total sales.
“You can’t ignore it as a revenue location,” he said. “We have the best network, the best frequencies, we serve more cities, we have exceptional hospitality and on-time performance, that’s what business customers want so we have to be in the right place,” which is travel trade, he said.
“I think a brighter future is ahead of all of us. People want to travel – we will see a continued recovery here.