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Southwest launches broad effort to tackle looming pilot shortage

Southwest Airlines is seeking to head off a potential pilot shortage through a new partnership with several industry players that could provide the airline with up to 400 additional pilots annually.

The effort aims to guide new pilots through initial training and help them land jobs as flight instructors or charter aircraft pilots, where they can accumulate hours before applying for jobs as Southwest first officers.

US regulations from 2013 require new pilots to have 1,500h of flight time, a level some observers say has stymied the new-pilot pipeline.

But accumulating hours is not the primarily goal of Southwest's new training programme, which is called Destination 225, vice-president of flight operations Alan Kasher tells FlightGlobal.

Rather, the partnership will help ensure pilots receive training and experience that prepares them for jobs in an airline environment.

"The quality of the training is the key," he says. "What we did is build our foundational principles into their training programmes."

The carrier's partners in the programme include pilot training and flight simulator company CAE and several charter and private aircraft operators, including Jet Linx Aviation, XOJet and Swift Air. Another partner, aviation services company Argus, has reviewed the training that CAE and the charter partners will provide, and will evaluate pilots' performance through the programme.

Southwest currently has no shortage of potential recruits, but looming retirements and a potential weak hiring pipeline caught Southwest's attention.

"There's a point in three to five years where it becomes challenging," Kasher says.

Indeed, for several years some industry players have warned that pilot retirements, combined with a shortage of recruits, are already pinching supply.

The Regional Airline Association has cited a study estimating the shortage will hit 14,000 pilots by 2026, and Boeing has estimated the industry will need 645,000 new commercial pilots globally during the next 20 years.

Southwest will interview all Destination 225 applications and accept those expected to excel in the training programme and as eventual Southwest pilots.

The programme provides several training tracks called "pilot pathways", which align with 2013 regulations, enacted after the 2009 crash of Colgan Air flight 3409.

Though the regulations require new pilots have 1,500h of flight time, it reduces the baseline to 750h for military pilots and 1,000-1,250h for flight school graduates.

Destination 225 applications without flight experience will enter a CAE flight training programme, where they will learn to fly and be exposed to Southwest's "general operating philosophies on the flight deck", says Kasher.

For instance, students will learn Southwest's checklist procedures and concepts like "human factors" in the cockpit, he says.

CAE says it expects to train some 700 new pilots through the programme in ten years. Pilots must pay for their training.

Pilots will then have a chance to accumulate flight hours working as a CAE flight instructor or flying for the charter and business jet companies. The process might take four years, after which the pilots will be eligible for interviews with Southwest.

Destination 225's other tracks likewise help military pilots and flight school graduates land jobs at charter companies, where they can build hours and work toward a job in the right seat of a Southwest Boeing 737.

"At the end, they are guaranteed an interview," Kasher says.

Some airlines – notably regional carriers – have criticised the 1,500h rule, calling the environment in which pilots fly more critical than their cockpit hours. They have said many pilot applicants lack experience relevant to airline operations.

But Kasher stresses Destination 225 will train recruits to be airline pilots.

"They start in an airline environment," Kasher says. "They are coming out of… training with foundational skills that traditional civilians don't get".

The first Destination 225 training class begins in January.

Southwest anticipates some 100-140 recruits will enter the programme in the first year and that the effort will eventually generate 400 Southwest-qualified pilots annually, Kasher says.

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