United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby was asked recently about whether United is benefiting from pilot attrition at Southwest Airlines. His response was surprising, suggesting that pilots are giving up their seniority at major US carriers to come fly for United.
United Airlines CEO: We Are Hiring Pilots From All Airlines
Asked whether United was seeing an influx of pilots from Southwest, Kirby responded:
“And on the pilot front, what I’d say is, it’s an amazing change. I try to get out to the pilot training center and see new hire classes, and we’re hiring 200 a month, and I’ve started asking where they come from and show of hands.
“It used to be like from any of the large airlines, ULCCs, LCCs, big airlines, hardly any because you had to give up seniority to come. We now have a high percentage of people in those classes that are coming from all airlines. And I think the reason is because United has — if you’re a pilot — well, if you’re any one and you aspire to a career in aviation, United is a place to go. We’re well on our way to be the biggest, but also the best Andrew [Nocella] talked about the brand, the reputation that matters a lot to people.
“Our pay rates are going to always be — vary depending on the timing of contracts, but always basically going to be at the top of the industry. If you’re a pilot, United has the most growth opportunities and most opportunities, the fastest path to captain. The most widebodies of any airline by far in the country, like we’re the place to go. And people are actually giving up their seniority at all of our competitors for the opportunity to come and have a future at United that’s a testament to what all the people of United have accomplished and how bright we feel like the future looks.”
Multiple sources have told Live And Let’s Fly that United is poaching pilots from the likes of Allegiant, Frontier, and Spirit, which fall under the “ultra-low-cost-carrier” category and pay their pilots comparatively less than the legacy carriers. United is also attracting regional pilots from other airlines. But this is the first time I have heard of United poaching pilots from more major airlines.
Kirby specifically pinpoints the concern: seniority. If you spend 10 years as a pilot at American Airlines, a job offer at United Airlines is far less attractive because you start at the bottom of the list again when to seniority. That means you are less likely to receive the trips you bid for or work the hours you prefer. It also means lower boarding priority for standby if commuting or non-revving.
I’m not accusing Kirby of puffery, but I would love to see the actual numbers. I do think working for United is an amazing opportunity or aspiring pilots. Indeed, the number of widebody aircraft presents a unique opportunity to fly and to rise in the ranks. Even so, I just have trouble believing that pilots who are established at American or Alaska or Delta or Southwest would ever jump ship.
Kirby has hinted that United is poaching pilots from other network carriers. Based upon the seniority system of U.S. carriers, I find such a claim difficult to believe, but I’ve certainly heard that pilots are leaving regionals and budget carriers to join United. That represents a true threat to the regional airline business and the low-cost-carrier model, but I do wonder whether any mainline pilot from another network carrier would actually give up seniority to work for United.
Are you a pilot who has jumped ship recently? What would it take for you to give up your seniority and move to a different carrier?