United Airlines has told staffers that there’s only enough work in June for 3,000 of its 25,000 strong workforce of flight attendants according to sources who are said to have listened in on a briefing call last week. “If you just look at a way in which our network is flying we’d need about 3,000 flight attendants to fly our schedule for June,” United’s managing director of inflight crew resourcing, Michael Sasse is reported to have said of the situation.
There’s no denying the fact that this is undoubtedly a serious situation but is it newsworthy? According to Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA), the union that represents United’s in-flight crew the answer is a hard no.
“This is not news,” Nelson bluntly explained in response to the news first reported by Reuters. Instead, the union leader who has been dubbed America’s Most Powerful Flight Attendant, said those numbers simply reflected the importance of securing government support for temporary payroll protection through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nelson was one of the leading advocates for adding a provision within the Trump administration’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to secure employee pay as part of an aviation bailout package. United must use its $5 billion CARES Act bailout to keep on paying employees and avoid redundancies until at least October 1.
At this point, everyone knows that airlines have far more employees than there is work. United has slashed its schedules by up to 90 per cent and stay at home orders, border closures and travel restrictions mean demand has plummeted. But tentative figures from the Transport Security Administration (TSA) suggest we may have already witnessed the slump bottom out – Thursday was the busiest day for passengers passing through TSA checkpoints since March 25 and the trend shows a slight upwards curve.
But no one truly knows what the recovery might look like in the coming months. There’s a sense that worldwide, domestic travel might bounce back quicker than international markets – if that’s the case, such a recovery would benefit U.S.-based airlines.
Sources who listened in to the briefing call with Sasse noted that he couldn’t extrapolate potential staffing needs based on the picture in June. No one truly knows how demand might recover and Sasse told staffers that United didn’t want to “cut deeper” than absolutely necessary.
United has, however, been priming its workforce for the potential for mass layoffs comes October 1. Management and administrative employees have been told that as much as 30 per cent of their workforces could be cut as soon as CARES Act funding runs out. Flight attendants and pilots have also been told to prepare for the possibility of involuntary redundancies come the Fall.
For now, we’ll just have to keep watching the numbers over the coming months.
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.