United Airlines tells staff it's hiring hundreds of pilots next month as carrier plans for a travel recovery

  • United plans to resume hiring of hundreds of pilots as travel demand recovers.
  • The carrier is the first large U.S. airline to restart hiring of pilots, a turning point in the pandemic.

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United Airlines on Thursday told staff it will soon begin hiring hundreds of pilots — a process the airline was forced to halt when coronavirus pandemic devastated travel demand last year, according to an internal email reviewed by CNBC.

The Chicago-based airline is the first of the large U.S. carriers to announce it will resume pilot hiring, the latest sign it's preparing for a recovery.

For the past year, airlines, including United, have urged thousands of workers to take buyouts, early retirement packages and leaves of absence as they raced to cut costs during the pandemic.

U.S. airlines together lost $35 billion last year but expect a steady rise in bookings as more of the public is vaccinated and feels more comfortable getting on planes.

"With vaccination rates increasing and travel demand trending upwards, I'm excited to share that United will resume the pilot hiring process that was halted last year," Bryan Quigley, United's senior vice president of flight operations, wrote in a staff note on Thursday, which was viewed by CNBC. "We'll start with the approximately 300 pilots who either had a new hire class date that was canceled, or who had a 2020 conditional job offer."

Air travel demand has recently perked up. The Transportation Security Administration screened an average of about 1.2 million people per day last month, up 15% from a year ago when the pandemic and stay-at-home orders halted almost all travel.

Last month's volumes are still less than half of March 2019 levels with business and international travel still mostly stalled, but leisure demand is starting to climb. United CEO Scott Kirby on Wednesday told an industry conference that domestic leisure demand has almost completely recovered.

Like United, other carriers are starting to see a need for additional staff, particularly pilots whose training is costly and time-consuming.

Spirit Airlines last month said it resumed hiring pilots and flight attendants while other budget carriers Allegiant Air and Sun Country Airlines also expect to hire this year.

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