In a joint memo to United’s 88,000+ employees, Oscar Munoz the airline’s chief executive and United president Scott Kirby said they had taken the “difficult decision” to offer voluntary but unpaid leave of absences as part of “aggressive action” to protect the company and its employees. Explaining the decision, the two said “a lot had changed” since they last updated employees last weekend.
“Due to the decline in demand flowing from the impact of COVID-19, we’re taking additional steps to reduce our international and domestic schedules,” the memo which was sent on Wednesday afternoon reads.
International schedules will be hit by as much as 20 per cent in April and further reductions are already being planned for May. United has so far cancelled flights to Beijing, Chengdu, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Flights from Los Angeles, Houston and Chicago to Tokyo have also been suspended.
But United’s domestic network is also now starting to feel the slowdown in demand – both from connecting international traffic and reduced demand among U.S. travellers. The airline said Wednesday that the slump in demand required “significant changes to our domestic schedule”.
Domestic services across the United States and Canada will be trimmed by as much as 10 per cent. Changes will be made public on March 7.
Munoz and Kirby said the new schedule reductions were being done in such a way as to minimize the impact on both customers and staff but they noted that international schedules.
Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CIO) president Sara Nelson welcomed United’s “responsible approach” to managing the evolving situation stemming from the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We want to be very clear that the airline has worked with our union from the start to implement safety and health measures to ensure crew and passengers are safe,” Nelson said of its relationship with the airline.
“We encourage the public to continue to fly with confidence,” she continued.
While United’s flight attendants normally enjoy pay protection when their flights are cancelled or changed, Nelson said the new schedule reductions would need to be managed through unpaid leaves of absence.
“The contract provides that Flight Attendants retain medical and other benefits the same as active employees, and Flight Attendants continue to accrue seniority during the leave of absence. The special leaves will be open for bid and are awarded in seniority order,” Nelson explained.
Munoz and Kirby told employees that they “sincerely hope” the measures announced today would be enough but “the dynamic nature of this outbreak requires us to be nimble and flexible moving forward in how we respond” they said.
Finishing on a positive note, the leaders said United had never been in a better position to “weather a crisis like this”.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.