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May 20, 2024


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The pandemic did a number on every business in the service sector.  US airlines were hit hard and, like everyone else, grabbed the PPP funding.   As traffic dropped off, airlines scrambled to lose employees.  The most expensive were offered buyouts to get them off the payroll and onto pension plans where possible.  As we noted, this policy has returned to haunt many commercial aviation companies.

DoT; AirInsight

Before the pandemic, US airlines had long-term, steady job growth. By March 2020, however, the bottom dropped out, and the industry labor market was in freefall. It wasn’t until November that the market turned around, and jobs started coming back.

Here, we see the same data for large US airlines.

DoT; AirInsight
  • Southwest Airlines was the best place to work. The chart shows a low rate of layoffs, which was terrific LUV for employees. They started hiring after the pandemic, slower than their peers.  But having held on to their people, that makes sense.
  • American Airlines was the second best place to work. They kept their employees the longest during the pandemic. When they laid off people, they started rehiring only a month later.
  • United reacted more quickly than American, and had a bumpy labor rehiring process.
  • Among the biggest airlines, Delta was the worst place to work. In March 2020, it laid off people alarmingly: 90,000 employees dropped to ~50,000 in two months. By June 2020, Delta realized they had overdone this and started rehiring.

The upper chart shows industry hiring growth peaked in October 2023 at ~468,000.  The just-released numbers for February 2024 show ~469,000 employees.

The other side of this story is the ongoing climb in passenger numbers.  The following table, using 3Q23 data, provides a perspective on what you might expect when flying in the US. This is passengers per employee.

DoT; AirInsight
author avatar
Addison Schonland
Co-Founder AirInsight. My previous life includes stints at Shell South Africa, CIC Research, and PA Consulting. Got bitten by the aviation bug and ended up an Avgeek. Then the data bug got me, making me a curious Avgeek seeking data-driven logic. Also, I appreciate conversations with smart people from whom I learn so much. Summary: I am very fortunate to work with and converse with great people.

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