Southwest recalls more than 200 pilots as travel demand picks up

The pilots will return to 'active status' on June 1

Southwest Airlines is recalling more than 200 pilots as air travel continues to improve from the lows of the coronavirus pandemic as more people get vaccinated.

The major carrier said 209 pilots from the airline’s voluntary leave program will be called back to "support the upcoming summer schedule."

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The pilots will return to "active status" on June 1, and when they do, they will be asked to complete "all requalification training requirements prior to resuming flying duties,"  according to a spokesperson for Southwest.

Early on in the pandemic, when travel demand had slumped to historic lows, Southwest had implemented its voluntary time off program, offering employees "who wish to continue their employment" the opportunity to take long-term time off.

The program was available to a handful of employees for a minimum of six months. During this time, employees would get partial pay as well as other benefits, travel privileges and health care.

People walk to a gate to board a Southwest Airlines flight to Orlando, Fla. Sunday, May 24, 2020 at Kansas City International airport in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Travel has only temporarily picked up a few times over the year, mainly around holidays, before dropping back down. Recently, however, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has reported a steady increase in passenger volume at airports nationwide although there is "still a long way to go to return to pre-pandemic levels," according to spokesperson Lisa Farbstein.

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The agency screened nearly 1.6 million people at airports nationwide on April 2, the highest total since March 12, 2020, according to TSA spokesperson Lisa Farbstein.

To date, checkpoint volume has exceeded 1 million for 26 days in a row, offering a bit of hope for the once-lucrative industry.

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Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said last month during a Washington Post webcast that the airline could break even by June, “where you have had much of the population vaccinated.”

In a regulatory filing, Southwest also projected that March and April will be better than expected as passenger traffic and fares rise. The airline said people are booking leisure trips to beach and mountain destinations but business travel is still lagging.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.