Major US airlines to lay off thousands of workers as Covid-19 support expires

Michael Sainato
·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

Major US airlines have warned they will lay off tens of thousands of workers in October when the Cares Act payroll support program for the industry expires, raising the prospect of devastation for many workers and their families.

Fired airline workers will enter an economy still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic and where weekly unemployment claims remain above 1m. The airline industry is among several where large employers have announced plans to conduct mass job cuts over the next few months.

Among the largest airlines in the US, thousands of workers have already taken voluntary separation agreements, early retirement or volunteered leave of absences as part of efforts to reduce workforces to mitigate expected furloughs and layoffs in October.

Related: Virgin Atlantic files for bankruptcy protection as Covid continues to hurt airlines

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in the air transportation industry fell from about 512,000 workers in March 2020 to about 380,000 in June 2020.

“It’s causing a lot of stress for people,” said Matt, a flight attendant for five years who requested to keep their employer and last name anonymous for fear of retaliation. “Worrying about if I will still have my job, how long will I be out, what am I going to do in the meantime if I do get furloughed?”

These concerns are added stress for workers still on the frontlines of travel amid fears about coronavirus and issues with passengers who try to avoid following mask mandates on flights.

“Thankfully I have not been given a furlough letter, but I would be a fool to think I was untouchable or my airline couldn’t be affected,” said Mitra, another flight attendant. “Early in the pandemic at one point I flew two people from Orlando to Charlotte on a jet for 186 people. Things are starting to pick up, but with that comes other concerns, the more people you are around, the higher the exposure rate is and more likely you are to catch coronavirus.”

According to the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, about 1,000 flight attendants in the US have tested positive for coronavirus. The union is pushing for the Cares Act payroll protection program for airlines to be extended until March 2021, as only about 20% of air travel has returned.

Globally, the airline industry faces an estimated $84bn in losses in 2020, while several US airports are expecting further downturns as coronavirus cases have climbed in several parts of the country since the end of June 2020.

American Airlines has warned it could lay off up to 20,000 employees. According to an American Airlines spokesperson, “more than 41,000 team members have opted for an early retirement, a reduced work schedule or a partially paid leave”, with numbers not yet available for employees who opted into additional leave and early-out programs opened in mid-July.

“Flight attendants with less than four years of seniority are in very real danger of furloughs. There is no predetermined amount of time as far as lengths of time out. It’s very unsettling,” said a flight attendant with American Airlines based in North Carolina who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

United Airlines said in early July 2020 it could lay off 36,000 employees, about half its workforce in the US.

A Southwest passenger waits for takeoff in Oakland, California. Nearly 30% of airline employees have taken voluntary retirement or extended leave.
A Southwest passenger waits for takeoff in Oakland, California. Nearly 30% of airline employees have taken voluntary retirement or extended leave. Photograph: Étienne Laurent/EPA

Nearly 30% of employees, about 17,000, at Southwest have taken voluntary retirement or extended leave as the airline tries to avoid layoffs and furloughs.

At JetBlue, over 60% of its workforce, around 20,000 employees, have taken voluntary leave to reduce furloughs in October.

Spirit Airlines expects to furlough between 20% to 30% of its frontline workers in October, from its workforce of about 9,000 employees.

Alaska Airlines intends to cut its workforce by 7,000 employees by the end of 2020, while 30% of its 23,000 employees have volunteered for a leave of absence.

Smaller US airlines are expected to roll out layoffs in October, including Hawaiian Airlines which announced the airline, currently employing over 7,000 workers, is likely to be 15% to 25% smaller by next summer.

Delta Air Lines managed to avoid plans to conduct furloughs and layoffs so far due to 20% of their workforce taking voluntary retirements.

“I took the one-year voluntary leave, but we received an email stating we are all to report back to work on 1 August,” said a Delta Air Lines ramp agent in Texas who requested to remain anonymous. “Delta has repeatedly said they won’t furlough or lay off workers, but every other airline is doing so, and the air traffic and flights just aren’t there. There’s no transparency and Delta isn’t telling us anything.”

Dan Sullivan, an aircraft lead agent at Delta Air Lines in Minneapolis, Minnesota, for 31 years, took the early retirement because support from his wife and savings they have accrued enabled him to do so.

“We’ve been asked to sacrifice so many times over the decades. Our lives have been turned upside down so many times,” said Sullivan.

A Delta Air Lines spokesperson told the Guardian: “The hope is to minimize furloughs or avoid them altogether.” They did not comment on workers being brought back from voluntary leave, but cited over 17,000 Delta employees have taken early retirement or early out packages, which went into effect at the end of July 2020.