United Airlines pilots accept cuts to avoid furloughs on Oct. 1

Sep 28, 2020

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Pilots at United Airlines can sleep a little easier having agreed to a deal that avoids as many as 3,900 furloughs during the coronavirus pandemic.

Approval of the accord between Chicago-based United and the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) means up to 2,850 pilots do not face the ax if protections under the federal coronavirus aid package, or CARES Act, expire on Thursday (Oct. 1). An additional tally of more than 1,000 furloughs would have come in 2021 barring a dramatic return in air travel.

The vote comes as airline executives and union leaders are beating down doors on Capitol Hill to try and pass an 11th-hour measure to extend CARES Act protections. Despite bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, as well as in the White House, there is no indication that legislators are near an agreement on a six-month extension of the payroll support program for airline staff.

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“We are a critical cog for the economy,” United CEO Scott Kirby told reporters outside the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 22. “When the economy is ready to bounce back to normal, we need these aviation professionals to be here to support that robust rebound for the entire economy.”

United is not the first airline to reach a furlough-averting deal with pilots. Pilots at Alaska Airlines, JetBlue Airways and Spirit Airlines have all reached deals with their respective carriers to either avoid or postpone furloughs. Delta Air Lines has agreed to put off any move until Nov. 1, and Southwest Airlines has said it will not involuntarily let go of staff this year.

Even with the deals, more than 35,000 airline employees stand to lose their jobs on Thursday a payroll support extension. However, airlines are only one of the many sectors asking Congress for additional support with others including small businesses and the country’s beleaguered transit systems.

Related: American, United say flights to small cities are at risk unless Congress extends payroll program

As for pilots at United, everyone will work fewer hours under the deal that was approved by a 58-42 margin in favor, according to ALPA.

However, the reductions will hit those who joined the company most recently — in other words “junior” pilots — harder than those with more seniority. A United official explained that this is because junior staff were the most likely to be furloughed.

“All of the pilots are making a sacrifice [and] those at the bottom of the seniority scale are making more of a sacrifice,” they said. They added that the agreement will be postponed if Congress passes the payroll support extension by Thursday.

Roughly 12,000 United staff still face furloughs this week without additional federal relief. These include flight attendants, ground staff and maintenance technicians.

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

Featured image by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

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