Southwest Airlines will open a new crew base in Nashville next year, in what appears to be the latest carrot to pilots during increasingly fraught contract talks with airline management.
The Dallas-based carrier will initially base 150-250 pilots in Nashville, and eventually 500-600, Southwest said Monday. It plans to staff 500-700 flight attendants at the airport as well. When the base opens in the second quarter of next year, it will be the 12th crew base in Southwest’s system.
“Our presence in Nashville … [is] a key factor to our success, future growth, and the reliability of our network,” Southwest Chief Operating Officer Andrew Watterson said in a statement. He added that “hundreds” of the airline’s employees already live in the area. Watterson did not comment on the airline’s negoiations with pilots.
A new crew base is a carrot that airlines can throw staff to generate goodwill and support for management. That appears important for Southwest, which is locked in contentious contract talks with its pilots union, the Southwest Airlines Pilot Association (SWAPA). Negotiations began in 2020. Earlier this year, pilots authorized a potential strike — a move that is also seen as a negotiating tactic — and have sought release from mediated talks with the U.S. National Mediation Board. A strike could occur after a 30-day cooling off period following the release from mediated negotiations.
A pilot strike at Southwest would ground the third largest airline by number of flights in the U.S.
SWAPA did not respond to a request for comment.
United Airlines announced two new crew bases — in Las Vegas and Orlando — last year amid its own contentious pilot contract talks. The carrier reached a deal with its pilots union, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), in July.
Labor relations aside, adding a crew base can help build operational resilience in an airline’s network. It reduces the need for airline employees to commute — often via a flight to another base — to begin work, and creates another node in a carrier’s network to handle staffing needs during irregular operations. The latter is something that proved a serious issue for Southwest during its December holiday meltdown last year.
A Nashville crew base makes a lot of sense for Southwest. The airport is the eighth busiest by departures — up to 149 a day in August — in the airline’s network, and the largest without a crew base, Cirium Diio schedule data shows. And Southwest will expand its footprint to 20 gates at the Nashville airport — up from 16 currently — by the end of the year. The gate expansion comes just three years after it moved into the rebuilt Concourse D in Nashville.
Southwest carried nearly 54% of passengers at the Nashville airport during the fiscal year ending in June 2022, according to a November 2022 bond prospectus from the airport. The airport has not released a breakdown of fiscal 2023 numbers. And the airline considers the city one of its nine “focus cities” where it caters to both local and connecting travelers.
Passenger numbers are also rising rapidly in Nashville. The airport saw a record 21.9 million passengers during the year ending in June, Nashville airport data show. Traffic is expected to grow at an average annual rate of 4% through 2031, according to the bond prospectus. To accommodate that growth, the airport is in the midst of a multi-billion dollar capital plan that includes a new ticketing and security area, and expansions of concourses A, C, and D.
Southwest currently has 11 crew bases located at: Atlanta, Baltimore-Washington, Chicago Midway, Dallas Love Field, Denver, Houston Hobby, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Oakland, Orlando, and Phoenix.