U.S. airline workers face a new round of anxiety with United and Hawaiian airlines warning almost 15,000 employees on Monday that they could be back on unemployment rolls come April.
Chicago-based United has sent warnings to 14,000 staff, including 12,000 flight attendants, of possible involuntary furloughs. The notices followed a warning by the airline’s CEO Scott Kirby in December that recalls were likely to only be temporary.
“Despite ongoing efforts to distribute vaccines, customer demand has not changed much since we recalled those employees,” United told staff in an internal communiqué Friday shared with Airline Weekly.
Honolulu-based Hawaiian has sent notices of possible furloughs to 900 staff.
The two carriers are unlikely alone. On Thursday, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker told investors that the carrier would likely “need to address” staffing levels amid a slower-than-hoped travel recovery.
“We anticipate that American to be saying something or producing WARN notices,” said Dennis Tajer, a spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association (APA), which represents pilots at American.
U.S. airline staff are guaranteed a paycheck until April 1, the day after protections under the popular coronavirus payroll support program expire. The $17 billion in paycheck relief was the second to round of aid to the industry after more than $25 billion in payroll assistance under the first CARES Act last March. When lobbying for the extension, airline executives argued that the additional funds would allow them to avoid any further staffing reductions by bridging the slow winter travel season.
That optimistic outlook has not played out. While actual furlough numbers will likely be lower than the number of WARN notices sent, airlines are widely viewed as overstaffed for the amount they are flying and plan to fly for the foreseeable future.
Given the uncertainty, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA) and Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) have begun lobbying for a third round of payroll funds. The unions are asking Congress for $15 billion to avoid “mass layoffs” come April and keeping staff on payrolls through September. The extension would likely include the air service requirements that have kept flights to small cities like New Haven, Conn., going during the pandemic.
President Joseph Biden has proposed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package, while a group of Republicans in Congress have countered with a $600 million relief deal.
Whether or not the unions can garner the political support needed for further airline support, the prospect of new federal Covid-19 testing rules for domestic flights is a wild card. Evidence suggests that mandating tests could reduce the spread of the virus — especially as new, more transmissible variants arrive in the U.S. — but also dampen already weak air travel demand.
“If there is a [testing] mandate that shocks demand, additional CARES funding is likely,” wrote Raymond James analyst Savanthi Syth in a report on Sunday.
President Biden has already unveiled one long-sought Covid-19 protection for crews and travelers: Mandating masks on all U.S. flights. The new rule goes into effect at 11:59 p.m. EST on Monday.