DALLAS – Southwest Airlines, which bucked the trend of layoffs and flight reductions after Sept. 11, plans to hire about 4,000 workers this year.
The help-wanted sign at Southwest contrasts with personnel plans at other airlines. A few are calling back some of the workers they laid off last fall. None are talking about creating new jobs.
Dallas-based Southwest is the only major U.S. airline still making money. The largest carriers, American and United, lost $3.8 billion between them last year.
Southwest, however, was not immune to the slowdown in business travel that started in 2001 or the steep decline in travel after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. It put growth plans on hold and delayed aircraft orders.
In December, Southwest announced it would take two new Boeing 737s — the first additions to its fleet since the terrorist attacks. But the hiring plans are Southwest's strongest indication that it believes it can regain its previous double-digit growth.
Southwest, which has 33,000 employees, says it plans to hire 250 pilots, 1,200 flight attendants and 2,600 other workers. Officials said that would match the hiring pace the airline had expected last year.
U.S. airlines announced about 100,000 layoffs after Sept. 11. The actual number of layoffs was closer to 80,000 because some workers took early retirement or left voluntarily, according to the Air Transport Association, an industry trade group.
Very few of those workers have been recalled, and Southwest believes it can choose from experienced applicants.
"We've been seeing a lot of people who want a second career, and we're seeing more furloughed flight attendants and pilots," said Lorraine Grubbs-West, the airline's director of field employment.
Ron Jackson, a former United Airlines flight attendant and electrician who joined Southwest last year, said the carrier's stability was a factor.
"We are always made to feel comfortable that we are going to keep our jobs," said Jackson, of Orlando, Fla. "I can't say I was ever worried about that."
Merrill Lynch analyst Michael Linenberg said Southwest's ability to avoid layoffs last fall has probably raised employee loyalty and improved its productivity — already considered the strongest among major carriers.
"They tend to have some of the lowest costs in the industry," Linenberg said. "So in times of depressed business, they can make money while others are losing money."
The major U.S. carriers lost more than $6 billion last year. Linenberg said the industry would finally post a profit of $270 million in the third quarter, with Southwest accounting for 70 percent of the gain.
Ray Neidl, an analyst with ABN Amro, said Southwest was likely to resume its historical trend of 10 percent to 12 percent growth by the second half of the year.
"They're not really an airline," Neidl said — meaning they don't operate the hub-and-spoke networks that all other large carriers use. He said demand is growing for Southwest's low-fare offerings, often at secondary airports.
Major carriers have reported slow gains in passengers since September, due partly to aggressive fare sales. But traffic still lags year-ago levels — Southwest was down 4.9 percent in January compared to a year earlier, Fort Worth-based American fell 15.6 percent and Houston-based Continental dipped 9.5 percent.
As a whole, the major carriers cut about one-seventh of their flights, which led to the massive layoffs. Very few of the laid-off workers have been rehired.
American Airlines fired about 11,000 workers and has recalled 3,100, said spokeswoman Andrea Rader. Hiring notices will go out April 1 to another 400 flight attendants, she said.
American chief executive Donald Carty "has told the employees that this is a rebuilding year," with the goal of rehiring many laid-off workers, Rader said. AMR lost a record $798 million in the fourth quarter and $1.76 billion for all of 2001.
United Airlines lost $2.1 billion last year and has cut about 19,000 jobs. Officials for the airline did not return phone calls.
Northwest Airlines cut 10,000 positions in October. The airline laid off 490 pilots instead of the originally announced 850 but has no plans for additional hiring, a spokesman said.
A Delta spokesman said the company had no announcements about jobs. Continental did not return phone calls.
Southwest said the new jobs would be spread across the 59 airports where it operates and at nine reservations centers around the country. Officials said the greatest need for workers was in Baltimore, Chicago and Oakland, Calif.