United has 3,000 employees out with COVID as staff shortages continue

Jan 11, 2022

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United Airlines has about 3,000 employees out sick with COVID-19, CEO Scott Kirby said in a letter to employees on Tuesday, or roughly 4% of its U.S. workforce.

The airline plans to cut its schedule in the near-term, Kirby said, part of an effort to reduce the strain on remaining employees and get a handle on the staffing shortage-related cancellations that have plagued the airline since Christmas Eve as the omicron variant spread across the U.S.

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While a wide range of airlines have been forced to cancel flights due to high numbers of staff testing positive, United was among the first airlines to see its operation affected, and it continues to see an impact.

Part of the issue for the Chicago-based carrier appears to be its high degree of exposure to the New York and broader Northeast market, where the omicron variant spread like wildfire through December. Kirby said that the airline’s hub in Newark, New Jersey, has seen a severe impact, with as many as one-third of Newark-based employees calling out sick in a given day.

Roughly 20,000 U.S. flights were canceled over the holiday travel period as staffing shortages combined with winter storms across the country to wreak havoc on airline networks. United canceled 3,008 mainline flights between Dec. 24 and Jan. 10, according to data from FlightAware, roughly 8% of its scheduled service.

JetBlue, Alaska Airlines, and others have already trimmed their schedules for January in an effort to cope with the spread of the variant.

United did not say how many flights overall it would cut. The airline, along with other carriers, has also offered premium pay for healthy pilots to pick up trips.

Kirby noted in the memo that none of its employees who have been vaccinated are currently hospitalized. It was not immediately clear whether unvaccinated employees — such as those with approved exemptions to the airline’s vaccine mandate — are currently in the hospital.

Read more: Snapshot: 1 in 13 flights were canceled during the holidays. How US airlines fared

Kirby also said that the rate of hospitalization among the airline’s employees has been “100x lower than the general population in the U.S.” since the vaccine mandate went into effect, and said that while more than one employee was dying weekly from COVID-19 on average before the mandate, the airline has gone eight straight weeks with no fatalities among vaccinated employees.

“[B]ased on United’s prior experience and the nationwide data related to COVID fatalities among the unvaccinated, that means there are approximately 8-10 United employees who are alive today because of our vaccine requirement,” he wrote.

Featured photo by David Slotnick/The Points Guy

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