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United makes new move to limit attendant furloughs in case Congress fails to act

Aug. 17, 2020
4 min read
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United makes new move to limit attendant furloughs in case Congress fails to act
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United Airlines hopes to limit the number of flight attendants it has to furlough this fall, rolling out new voluntary measures amid uncertainty over the the potential for additional federal coronavirus pandemic aid.

The Chicago-based carrier is offering cabin crew members "no-activity lines" to mitigate furloughs, United senior vice president of inflight services John Slater said in a Saturday (Aug. 15) letter to staff viewed by TPG. Crew members that participate in the program would stay active in the airline's ranks but forgo flying on a month-for-month basis to cut costs during the worst crisis airlines have ever faced.

United's hope is to minimize the number of flight attendants who are furloughed if Congress fails to extend the payroll support program through March 2021. The carrier has warned 15,100 cabin crew members — the most of any of its employee groups — of possible furloughs on Oct 1.

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"By introducing this option, we remain more responsive and prepared for when customers feel comfortable returning to the skies, while also providing a large number of flight attendants with the ability to remain active, with active employee benefits," said Slater.

Delta Air Lines has offered its flight attendants similar voluntary measures to address what it views as overstaffing this winter.

The new mitigation measures follow a number of other voluntary options at Delta, United and other airlines. Earlier offers included extended unpaid leave and voluntary departure packages.

Related: United Airlines may furlough up to 36,000 staff as coronavirus forces drastic cuts

U.S. airlines are preparing for a tough fall and winter. Leisure travelers — who have so far driven the recovery in air travel — historically fly less after Labor Day, when they typically are replaced by business travelers. However, with most U.S. offices shuttered and companies forgoing travel amid fears of COVID-19, few expect any return in corporate travel until 2021 at the earliest.

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United CEO Scott Kirby has warned that the airline anticipates flyer numbers to stall at around half of 2019 levels until there is a vaccine. And he does not expect a widely available vaccine until the end of 2021.

The new voluntary measures come as airlines and labor unions lobby Congress for a $25 billion extension of the payroll aid they received in March. The first round is set to expire on Sept. 30, potentially resulting in what Cowen analyst Helane Becker has called "terrible Thursday" on Oct. 1, which when tens-of-thousands of employees could be furloughed without an extension.

“Everyone is on pins and needles,” Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA) director of employee assistance programs Heather Healy told CNBC on Aug. 16.

Related: Should Congress dole out more money for airline employees?

Many agree that extending the program would only delay airlines' need to shrink their workforces in light of far fewer air travelers. However, there remains a strong argument for maintaining employment — and paychecks — to lessen the impact of the economic recession brought on by the pandemic.

Slater told flight attendants that United is "completely aligned" with the AFA, which represents cabin crew at the airline, as well as the other unions pushing for the extension of the payroll support. He did not say how many furloughs could be avoided by flight attendants taking no-activity lines.

Other airlines are also ratcheting up pressure on Congress to extend the payroll program. American Airlines is considering ending service to as many as 30 smaller cities across the U.S. after air service protections under the program expire on Sept. 30.

Congress recessed on Aug. 13 without an agreement on a new coronavirus aid package. It is not scheduled to return until after Labor Day.

Related: Global air travel unlikely to recover until 2024 as COVID remains ‘issue’ in US, elsewhere

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