United Airlines and American Airlines have furloughed 32,000 employees after a federal financial package expired, though hope remains that lawmakers might still pull together a second aid package.
American chief executive Doug Parker sent a note to employees late on 30 September saying he was still talking with government officials who continue to negotiating an extension of the payroll support programme (PSP). That financial-support package helped keep airlines afloat following the onset of the coronavirus crisis.
“Despite enormous bipartisan support for an extension of the PSP, our elected officials have not been able to reach agreement on a Covid-19 relief package that would enable this extension,” Parker writes. “As a result, tomorrow, we will begin the difficult process of furloughing 19,000 of our hardworking and dedicated colleagues.”
Parker adds that, should there be an agreement “in the next few days”, the Fort Worth-based airline “will reverse our furlough processes and recall any impacted team members”.
Chicago-based United says it will also need to furlough thousands of employees beginning on 1 October.
“Today is a very sad day for all of us at United,” the airline wrote to employees on 30 September. “After months of aggressive cost-cutting and proactive debt-raising actions to manage the company through the Covid-19 crisis and its impact on our business, we regrettably are forced to move forward with the process of involuntarily furloughing about 13,000 of our United team members.”
That number includes almost 7,000 flight attendants but no pilots. Earlier this week, the airline and its pilots union reached an agreement to avoid furloughs for that work group until at least June 2021.
The airline furloughs do not include the thousands of employees who have taken voluntary leaves of absence, reduced hours or early retirement packages.
Delta Air Lines’ chief executive Ed Bastian gave his employees a respite, telling them in a 1 October note that the airline will not exercise any involuntary furloughs until at least 1 November.
The Atlanta-based carrier has come to agreements with its other work groups to avoid furloughs, but the fate of 1,900 pilots still hangs in the balance.
“Fortunately, thanks to the hard work, shared sacrifices and innovative thinking of our people, Delta will avoid involuntary furloughs for our flight attendants and ground-based front-line employees in the US,” Bastian writes. “We also delayed involuntary furloughs for our pilots to Nov. 1.”
The US’ fourth largest passenger carrier, Southwest Airlines, said early that it would not furlough employees when the aid expired on 30 September.
Together, the four major airlines received about $19.5 billion of the $29 billion in grants from the CARES Act in order to keep employees’ salaries paid through the end of the third quarter.
Unions have joined with airline managers and aviation trade groups to lobby for a six-month extension to the financial relief, saying it would give the industry more time to recover the demand lost through the global pandemic.
That deadline passed on Wednesday, and lawmakers continue to quibble about the extension. If they reach an agreement, any further aid could carry similar stipulations as the initial bill passed in March: no involuntary furloughs of aviation employees for the duration of the aid.
Most airlines are now flying about half of their pre-coronavirus capacity, and passenger numbers remain far below this time last year.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which controls security screening at more than 450 US airports, says on 1 October that it processed 634,046 passengers on 30 September, down from 2.1 million on the same date a year ago.
Travel restrictions, including 14-day quarantine requirements in some jurisdictions, and fears of catching the highly-contagious onboard an aircraft, continue to keep customers away. Industry analysts and trade groups like Airlines for America (A4A) estimate it may take four years for the industry to return to pre-Covid levels.