Leaked memo reveals United Airlines may furlough up to one-third of its pilots as coronavirus continues to decimate travel demand

  • United Airlines plans to furlough up to 3,900 pilots, or about one-third of its entire pilot workforce, a leaked memo reveals.
  • United previously said it would warn 2,250 pilots of potential furloughs. In the Thursday memo, the airline said that the number would likely be higher due to the continuing impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
  • The airline also extended the filing deadlines for buyout and early retirement programs, which it cited as the main factor that could help minimize involuntary job cuts.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

United Airlines is preparing to furlough up to 3,900 pilots — about one-third of its entire pilot workforce — as the coronavirus pandemic continues to suppress travel demand.

In an internal memo to pilots first reported by Edward Russell at The Points Guy, United's senior vice president for flight operations, Brian Quigley, wrote that the move reflects a grim outlook for the US airline industry.

The projected numbers of furloughed pilots are greater than United previously said could see their jobs cut. Earlier this month, United sent Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) notices to 2,250 pilots, but said that not all of those who received the notices would necessarily be furloughed.

United and other airlines saw a modest recovery in air travel demand in May and June, which, combined with employees opting for early retirement and buyouts, generated optimism that layoffs and furloughs could be minimized. However, as COVID-19 cases have spiked across the US in recent weeks and triggered new quarantine restrictions in some states, that nascent rebound has evaporated, United said.

"In recent weeks, bookings have stalled and we continue to see an impact of the recent increase in COVID-19 cases on our business," Quigley wrote in the memo. "Because COVID-19 cases continue, and demand improvement remains very slow, we may need to furlough more pilots in 2020, and in 2021, than originally planned."

Earlier this month, United CEO Scott Kirby said that the airline expected the recovery in travel demand to plateau at roughly 50% of 2019 levels until a vaccine for COVID-19 is available. Quigley echoed that outlook.

"Given the recent surge in cases and associated reduced business, we do not expect customer demand to exceed about 50% versus 2019 levels until a vaccine is developed, mass produced, and readily available," he wrote. "[W]e don't expect to see a vaccine that is mass produced until late 2021."

United declined to comment on whether other groups of workers, such as flight attendants or baggage handlers, could also see greater numbers of furloughs, citing the fluid nature of the situation.

Other US airlines are also preparing to cut jobs starting in October, when restrictions on layoffs in the first coronavirus assistance package, the CARES Act, expire. American, Delta, and JetBlue, and Spirit have all warned of likely job cuts, although Southwest said last week that it does not plan to cut jobs until at least 2021.

Airlines have said that without demand recovering substantially over the next several months, something they characterize as unlikely to happen, the main factor determining the siz of furloughs will be whether additional employees take voluntary separation offers, such as buyouts and early retirements.

In a separate memo sent to United employees on Wednesday, the airline extended the application deadline for those voluntary programs.

Airline employee labor groups are also lobbying for an extension of CARES Act payroll support and employee protections, a move American and United have said they support.

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