United is latest to back union-led effort to extend coronavirus employment protections

Jul 22, 2020

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United Airlines is backing union-led efforts to extend employment protections for airline employees through March to avoid furloughing as many as 36,000 staff members this fall.

The Chicago-based carrier is following the lead of unions, including the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA), in an effort to get legislators in Washington to extend job protections through March, United CEO Scott Kirby said Wednesday during a virtual town hall for staff that was listened to by TPG.

United’s backing follows a similar move by American Airlines to support the effort, which could save tens-of-thousands airline jobs at a time when the recovery is tenuous at best.

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American has sent federally-mandated notices of possible furloughs to 25,000 employees and United has sent notices to nearly 36,000 staff. Delta Air Lines has notified more than 2,500 pilots of potential furloughs while Southwest Airlines and Spirit Airlines are warning staff that furloughs may be coming.

Airlines are barred from furloughing or laying off staff under rules laid out in the federal government’s coronavirus aid package, or CARES Act. Those expire on Sept. 30 with Wall Street analysts warning of a “terrible Thursday” on Oct. 1.

“I am confident that we can make it through the crisis without any more funding but it is also going to have an impact on employment,” Kirby told CNBC on Wednesday.

United reported a $1.6 billion loss before special items in the second quarter. The airline expects the travel recovery to stall at around half of 2019 levels until there is a vaccine, or likely until the end of 2021.

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

AFA and ALPA are pushing Congress to extend the payroll protection program through March 31, 2021. Such a move, they say, would keep thousands of people on payrolls amid a deep economic slump while also giving the travel industry more time to recover from the crisis.

“Hundreds of thousands of aviation employees will lose their jobs through no fault of their own, as travel demand will remain sluggish well into 2021,” ALPA president Joseph DePete wrote in a letter to Congress on July 21. “Beyond the human toll posed by these mass layoffs, the economic damage to the economy and the industry will be substantial.”

ALPA represents pilots at Alaska Airlines, Delta, United and more than 10 other airlines.

Related: United Airlines worries travel recovery will stall until there’s a COVID vaccine

A competing proposal from the Allied Pilots Association (APA) would have the government buy seats on flights as a form of aid. The move would allow airlines to block middle seats in a promotion of social distancing, while at the same time preserve jobs during the downturn.

APA represents pilots at American.

Congress is currently debating a new coronavirus aid package with the hope that a deal can be reached before its scheduled August recess.

Related: American Airlines warns as many as 20,000 could lose jobs

Featured image by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

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