updated 12/8/2005 3:51:50 PM ET 2005-12-08T20:51:50

Pilots at Southwest Airlines Co. have agreed to fly more hours each month in a deal designed to save the company about $4 million a year because it won't have to hire as many new pilots.

Southwest's 4,700 pilots fly an average of about 67 hours a month but that will rise by about 1 1/2 hours due to the agreement, which was reached last month.

Pilots at Southwest averaged about 70 hours a month 10 years ago, but hours have declined as individuals gained seniority and earned more vacation time.

The agreement was ratified by members of the Southwest Airlines Pilots' Association and runs through July. Southwest is expected to seek to make the changes permanent when the union and the company begin negotiating a new contract in April.

Pilots generally are paid only for time spent in the air or taxiing around airports, so the agreement to increase flying time will boost their paychecks.

"You fly more, you make more," Carl Kuwitzky, vice president-elect of the union, said in an interview Thursday. "At the same time, it strengthens the company's competitive position. The pilots get a stronger company, and they get another 1 1/2 hours, on average, of pay."

Ed Stewart, a spokesman for Dallas-based Southwest, confirmed the agreement, which has not been publicly announced. He declined to comment further, saying the company typically doesn't discuss its labor relations.

The pilots' contract had been scheduled to expire in 2004 but both sides agreed in 2002 to extend it by two years, until Sept. 1, 2006. By federal law, airline industry contracts don't expire but can be amended, a process that makes strikes less frequent.

Southwest approached the pilots' union this year with a request to reach a side agreement on improving productivity, according to the union.

The deal at the largest low-cost carrier comes as pilots at American Airlines, the nation's largest airline, are considering options for improving productivity.

Pilots at American, a unit of Fort Worth-based AMR Corp., fly around 45 hours per month.

The Allied Pilots Association, representing 12,000 American pilots, is meeting with members this month to present research that identifies the productivity gaps between American and competitors.

Though the APA board has authorized its negotiating committee to begin dealing with the airline, no talks are under way.

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