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United, American Airlines Prepare to Furlough Thousands of Employees… Again

United, American Airlines Prepare to Furlough Thousands of Employees… Again

Two of America’s largest flight attendant unions have written an open letter to President Joe Biden pleading with him to support extending a payroll support program that has kept many airline workers in paid employment throughout the pandemic. The letter was sent on the same day that United Airlines sent federal WARN notices to 14,000 employees to notify them of impending furloughs when the current bailout runs out in April.

American Airlines is also preparing to send WARN notices to its own employees in the coming days, although a spokesperson for the Dallas Fort Worth-based airline has denied rumors that the letter will be posted this coming Monday.

Passenger airlines received $25 billion in payroll support funding in the first CARES Act which protected jobs through the end of September 2020. At least 32,000 airline workers were furloughed without pay or healthcare benefits for several months while Congress wrangled over an extension to the Coronavirus relief bill.

The extension was eventually passed on December 28, 2020, and passenger airlines received a further $15 billion to keep workers in paid employment – even if there wasn’t nearly enough work to go around because of the massive slump in passenger demand caused by the pandemic.

The problem, however, is that the second payroll support program was only meant to support employees through to the end of March 2021. Some airlines and lawmakers had optimistically thought that the airline industry would be heading into a full-blown recovery by the Spring, but surging COVID-19 infections and the fear of vaccine-resistant variants mean any recovery might not come until much later in the year.

The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) and the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), who together represent 75,000 flight attendants including at American and United Airlines, warned of “devastating” consequences if the payroll support program was not extended.

The unions have asked for a further $15 billion in financial support to keep employees in paid employment through to the end of September – or at least until the funding runs out.

The hope is that by keeping employees on full pay and up to date with training that airlines can immediately respond as soon as travel demand starts to recover. In late November 2020, American Airlines warned of a shortage of flight attendants following just a small increase in passenger flights after furloughing nearly 8,000 crew.

Southwest Airlines, which also took advantage of the first and second payroll support programs, believes that it will not need to furlough any employees through to the end of 2021 at the earliest even if a third bailout isn’t forthcoming. Delta Air Lines has been able to avoid furloughs through a combination of voluntary leaves and early-outs.

Scott Kirby, United’s chief executive, has been open about the fact that the Chicago-based carrier would furlough staff again at the end of March if travel demand didn’t drastically improve. For flight attendants, staffers who joined the airline has far back at September 1998 are set to be furloughed.

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