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United to Furlough 16,000 Employees — Shall Congress Intervene?

United Airlines said Wednesday it is planning to furlough 16,000 employees as of Oct. 1, after federal coronavirus aid protecting aviation jobs expires.

The planned involuntary cuts make up nearly 17% of the airline’s staffing level at the end of 2019. The number includes 6,920 flight attendants, 2,850 pilots, 1,400 management positions, 2,010 mechanics, and 2,260 airport workers, the company confirmed in a new memo to its employees.

In July, United warned that 36,000 jobs were at risk. Today’s significant reduction is due to the numerous employees who accepted buyouts, early retirement packages, and other options such as temporary leaves or reduced hours. Also, more than 7,000 employees opted to leave the firm and pursue other career options.

The furloughed employees could be called back once the demand returns, the airline noted. The Chicago-based airline said it could reduce the number further through other voluntary measures, particularly with its pilots.

United’s announcement comes a week after American Airlines confirmed plans to cut 19,000 jobs, and along with the voluntary leaves of absence and buyouts, to decrease its staff by 30% unless it gets additional federal funding.

The airline trade unions have already pledged another USD 25 billion in federal aid to preserve jobs. Numerous airline executives also expressed support for the extension of the CARES Act to prevent layoffs. A group of about 200 House members and 16 Republicans also voiced support for the program’s extension.

However, Congress has not approved a new national coronavirus relief package. It is uncertain whether a potential new package would include help for the airline industry at all.

US government already allocated a USD 2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package in spring, prohibiting airlines from cutting jobs and pay rates until Sept. 30. The federal aid was supposed to help the airlines mitigate the coronavirus crisis’s adverse effects, hoping that the travel demand would return shortly.

However, federal statistics showed that the travel demand had hovered around 30% of last year’s levels, forcing the airlines to take unpopular measures.

United’s CEO Scott Kirby said he did not expect significant changes in demand without a coronavirus vaccine. On Sunday, United, Delta, and American Airlines said they would permanently abandon the $200 domestic ticket-change fees for travelers with all but the cheapest tickets.

What do you think? Shall Congress allocate additional funding to the airlines to prevent forced layoffs?