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Airline workers brace for mass layoffs

With air travel down about 70% from last year, many carriers including United and American say they’ll be forced to cut jobs without additional federal aid.

A Southwest Airlines flight attendant prepares a plane bound for Orlando, Fla. for takeoff at Kansas City International airport in Kansas City, Mo.
About 40,000 workers in the airline industry are facing layoffs on Thursday unless Congress comes up with another aid package.
AP file

DETROIT — The worries are growing for United Airlines flight attendant Jordy Comeaux.

In a few days, he’ll be among roughly 40,000 airline workers whose jobs are likely to evaporate in an industry decimated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Unless Congress acts to help for a second time, United will furlough Comeaux on Thursday, cutting off his income and health insurance. Unemployment and the money made by his husband, a home health nurse, won’t be enough to pay the bills including rent near Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

“I don’t have enough, unfortunately, to get by,” said Comeaux, 31, who has worked for United for four years. “No one knows what’s going to come next and how to prepare.”

Since the pandemic hit, thousands of flight attendants, baggage handlers, gate agents and others have been getting at least partial pay through $25 billion in grants and loans to the nation’s airlines. To receive the aid, companies agreed not to lay off employees through Sept. 30. That “Payroll Support Program” helped many stay on, and keep health care and other benefits.

It all runs out on Thursday.

With air travel down about 70% from last year, many carriers including United and American say they’ll be forced to cut jobs without additional aid. Delta and Southwest, two other big carriers, tapped private capital markets and say they’ll avoid layoffs.

Industry analysts say fear of air travel and businesses keeping employees close to home have brought an unprecedented crisis to the industry, resulting in cataclysmic losses. The four largest U.S. airlines — Delta, United, American and Southwest — together lost $10 billion in the second quarter alone. Fewer airline passengers also means less demand for rental cars, hotels and restaurants. With demand for new planes down, airplane manufacturer Boeing has also cut thousands of jobs.

“To my understanding, this is the steepest demand shock for commercial aviation in human history,” said Morningstar aviation analyst Burkett Huey.

The International Air Transport Association on Tuesday lowered its full-year traffic forecast. The trade group for airlines around the world now expects 2020 air travel to fall 66% from 2019, compared to its previous estimate of a 63% decline.

Airlines in Europe are expecting years of trouble and have acted quickly to cut jobs even as they get government rescue loans.

In the U.S., Congress has been considering a second round of airline aid for weeks, but it’s hung up in the debate over a larger national relief package. The Airlines for America trade group said a House proposal unveiled Monday raises some hope because Democrats and Republicans appear to be talking. Layoffs could be delayed if a deal is imminent.

With early retirements and other incentives to quit, U.S. airlines have already shed about 45,000 jobs during the pandemic, or 48,000 including cargo carriers. Government figures are only available through July, however.

While job losses in the airline industry since the pandemic could be about 20% of the total workforce when accounting for the next round of cuts, there are other sectors feeling even more pain, including the restaurant, bar and hotel businesses. From February, before the coronavirus took hold in the U.S., through August, those businesses shed nearly 5.8 million jobs, or around 22% of the total number employed, according to federal statistics.

Flight attendants likely will be the hardest hit if the airline layoffs come this week because there are over 25,000 of them, more than any other job in the industry, said Savanthi Syth, an airlines analyst for Raymond James.

Pilots may not be affected as much because airlines want to avoid the cost of retraining them once they’re in a position to rehire. On Monday, United Airlines pilots ratified an agreement that the union and the airline say will avoid about 2,850 furloughs set to take effect later this week, and another 1,000 early next year.

It’s anyone’s guess when or even if air travel will recover from the pandemic and if airlines can fly through the turbulence. Morningstar expects a vaccine to be available by the end of this year with widespread distribution by the middle of 2021, but recovery could still take years.

Comeaux holds out hope that his union, the Association of Flight Attendants, can successfully lobby Congress for help in the next few days. Many United flight attendants, he said, took special leaves with no pay to preserve jobs for others.

“How long is it going to take for us to get back up and going?” he asked. “That’s the really difficult part.”