United Airlines will begin hiring pilots again after a year-long hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, therefore becoming the first major U.S. carrier to do so ahead of what is forecast to be a strong summer for leisure travel.
The Chicago-based carrier will hire 300 pilots initially, United Senior Vice President of Flight Operations Bryan Quigley said in an internal communiqué on Thursday viewed by Airline Weekly. The airline suspended hiring in March 2020 when the drastic impact of Covid-19 on air travel became clear. The memo was first reported by CNBC.
United joins budget carriers Allegiant Air, Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines — all of which are forecast to emerge from the crisis earlier than others due to their heavy reliance on leisure flyers — in resuming pilot hiring. American Airlines and Southwest Airlines have no plans yet to start bringing in new crews, according to spokespeople.
A Delta Air Lines spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.
U.S. airlines shed nearly 58,000 staff members in 2020, according to Bureau of Transportation Statistics data. However, that number was buoyed by the extension of federal payroll assistance in December that allowed airlines to recall involuntarily furloughed staff. Airline employment was down by nearly 86,000 people at its worst last October.
“We can see that light at the end of the tunnel,” United CEO Scott Kirby said at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s annual aviation summit on Wednesday. Domestic leisure travel demand has “nearly recovered” to pre-Covid levels, he added.
Kirby is not alone in his optimism. In just the past week, American said it would return “most” of its fleet to service with net bookings at 90 percent of 2019 levels. And at a ceremony marking its membership in Oneworld on Wednesday, Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci said the carrier generated positive operating cash flow in March for the first time since early 2020 with bookings “strong” going into the summer.
Transportation Security Administration screening numbers have held above 1 million people a day since March 11, the longest stretch above that threshold since early in the pandemic. However, the nearly 1.6 million people screened on Thursday was still down 35 percent compared to 2019.
United’s decision to resume hiring comes as it juggles its operating fleet — and crews. Following the failure of a Pratt & Whitney engine on a Boeing 777-200 and subsequent grounding of those aircraft in February, the airline parked its 24 operating P&W-powered 777s and is ferrying the aircraft to Roswell, said Quigley. It plans to backfill that capacity by returning its stored Boeing 767-400ERs to service.
The airline stands alone among its peers as having retired barely any jets during the crisis. Only a small subfleet of 11 Boeing 757-200s with P&W engines have been officially written off. Comparatively, American has retired 95 mainline jets and Delta 118 mainline aircraft.
The few aircraft retirements at United should limit the amount of pilot retraining it needs moving crews to different planes. A training backlog forced Delta to cancel flights over the Thanksgiving holiday, and has raised concerns for American’s target of returning most of its fleet to service by June.
Almost 1,000 pilots have either retired or taken early departure packages from United since September, Quigley said.