It’s been a rough week to be a junior pilot at any airline in America. Furlough announcements have started to go out as the October 1 restriction on airline layoffs looms, and the demise of a regional carrier just got moved from December 31 to September 30.
The airline industry got a huge infusion of cash in late March when the CARES Act was signed into law. It likely prevented bankruptcies—if not outright failures—of airlines that went from record profits to a 90% reduction in traffic as the pandemic swept the planet and people hunkered down. The money came with strings attached, and one of those stipulations was that airlines couldn’t shed employees via layoffs or furloughs until October 1. While many at the time figured things would be better by October, the industry is still far from a meaningful recovery. Through late July and into early August, many airlines sent out WARN notices, federally mandated notifications to workers whose jobs might be impacted by upcoming furloughs. Those notices are required to be published 60 days prior to a mass layoff.
Those notices triggered a round of negotiations at several airlines, which resulted in early retirement, severance or leave-of-sabsence packages to encourage senior pilots to leave the flight deck. Now, with just over a month before the October 1 limit approaching, several airlines are issuing official furlough notices.
Delta Air Lines has sent official notices to 1,940 pilots effective October 1. American Airline projects 1,605 tentative pilot furloughs, and American Airlines sent 2,506 WARN letters. United has indicated as many as 3,900 potential furloughs, with a first wave in October of 1,750. American and United’s numbers are expected to firm up as September 1 nears.
ExpressJet, a regional carrier that flew exclusively as United Express, had planned to wind down operations by year’s end after their contracted flying was moved to competitor Commutair. The timeline got moved up in recent days, and now ExpressJet will cease operations September 30, leaving approximately 1,416 pilots out of work, with no furlough recall rights in the midst of an epic industry downturn. Earlier this year, other regional carriers Compass, Trans-States and RAVN Alaska also ceased operations.
Many smaller carriers, with less of an international footprint have managed to avoid furloughs so far, including Spirit, JetBlue, Alaska and Southwest. These companies are far from failsafe; they’re just not affected as much by restrictions on international travel that have racked the legacy carriers.
While these notices aren’t a surprise by any stretch, they still sting sharply for the affected pilots and their families. Ripples will extend beyond the furloughs, depending on the complexity of the fleet makeup at each carrier, where each furlough will likely create a mass of training events as pilots are shuffled into different aircraft, domicile cities, or downgraded from captain to first officer according to their seniority.
And that’s only the pilot side of the bad news. There are likely to be tens of thousands of other airline employees, from flight attendants, gate personnel, mechanics, training personnel and more. In addition, tens of thousands of employees took early retirement or other buyouts to exit their employment. Major carrier American Airlines announced this week that it would furlough an additional 17,500 workers in October when the CARES Act airline employee protections run out, which by one estimate would bring the total number of employees leaving just that one airline to around 40,000 as a result of the downturn in business related to the pandemic.