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American Airlines flight attendant Aaron Cuevas doesn’t know if he’ll have a job next week. He doesn’t even know if he should look for a new one or wait to find out how long unemployment might last.
Starting this week, American Airlines could begin furloughing 17,500 flight attendants, pilots, mechanics, ramp workers and other employees.
Across the airline industry, about 80,000 workers are holding notices telling them time is coming due for carriers to say goodbye if Congress doesn’t pass another payroll extension grant. Airline executives and union leaders say they are still hopeful to get a deal done by the end of September, but time is running out.
The changes are coming the fastest at Fort Worth-based American Airlines, which is staring at more debt and more overhead than its competitors.
What could happen after Thursday and in the weeks to come, will change flying for both passengers and employees.
“It stressful,” said Cuevas, who got a job with American four years ago after eight years in the U.S. Army. “Do you move forward with life?”
Thursday is the day when the restrictions end that came with the $25 billion in CARES Act funding from late March. That prohibited airlines from laying off or furloughing employees and cutting pay. American Airlines took $4.1 billion in grants and nearly $7.2 billion in loans. Dallas-based Southwest Airlines got $2.2 billion in grants and another $947 million in loans.
As those restrictions are about to lift, airlines are in worse condition than they thought they would be in spring or early in summer.
Congress is deadlocked on an extension amid a larger fight over a multitrillion-dollar stimulus package that includes funding for small businesses, unemployment aid and relief for cash-strapped states.
This week, joining American’s workers at risk are 13,000 employees of competitor United Airlines. Delta Air Lines postponed furlough talk until November and Southwest Airlines said it will be able to make it through the end of 2020. Smaller airlines issued furlough notices to about 11,000 workers.
Passenger traffic is still down about 70% compared to a year ago, according to Transportation Security Administration data. Those numbers have only modestly improved since early July, forcing airline executives to face the financial truth that they’re running companies with only one-third of the customers they were built to handle.
For passengers, fewer destinations and more connections
Airlines have been cutting flights since March, but carriers have been more aggressive with reductions for October. Southwest trimmed back its schedule to about 50% of last year’s capacity.
“What I would predict now is that I don’t see that changing significantly from here until we get a vaccine,” Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said in an interview in early September. “Until we get to that point, I wouldn’t expect us to see a significant improvement in our traffic. That will be sometime in 2021 at best.”
Southwest is also doing less point-to-point flying than it has in the past, meaning there is a greater likelihood that customers will have to connect once or twice to get to their final destination.
American has said it will cut service to 12 smaller destinations in October, with two more that could lose service with federal approval. Cities such as Del Rio, Texas, and Huntington, W.Va., could lose service from the only major airline serving those communities.
Starting Thursday, American Airlines is also cutting one or two flight attendants on many of its longer flights or on larger planes, citing a need to adjust to the new reality of flying more efficiently.
For employees, shorter flights and longer trips
Even before furloughs, airlines reduced payrolls dramatically for October through early retirements and voluntary leave of up to five years. Southwest Airlines got 17,000 employees, or 28% of all workers, to retire early or take leave. At American, about 23,000 volunteered to step away from the company permanently or temporarily.
Without federal payroll grants, American said it needs only 11,700 flight attendants, compared to 27,000 before the pandemic. About 8,100 flight attendants are scheduled to be furloughed.
“We’ve sized the airline over the next couple of months based on demand,” said American Airlines chief operating officer David Seymour. “We had to have a contingency plan thinking that we won’t get the Payroll Support Program.”
American Airlines also parked 100 planes in short-term storage in anticipation of less demand in October, a typically slow month before traffic picks up again in November for Thanksgiving. But crews are still needed to maintain those planes, Seymour said.
For flight crews including pilots and flight attendants, the cuts will bring big changes in the way they live and work. In August, flight attendants were warned that those left after Thursday will have more trips per day, less time between flights and more time spent on standby.
“We are still in COVID and it’s difficult for flight attendants during these longer days, these three, four, five-day trips,” said Julie Hedrick, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants.
Mechanics and other support employees are expected to be furloughed throughout October and pilot furloughs will be staggered, with about half coming in October and the rest in November and December.
Pilots are also facing schedules with more standby time, said Dennis Tajer, spokesman for Allied Pilots Association, which represents American’s pilots. New schedules also have more three and four-day trips, Tajer said, as opposed to two days of back-to-back flying before the pandemic.
Across the country, American has already made the decision to close flight attendant bases in St. Louis and Raleigh-Durham, N.C.. Other employees could be displaced or be required to move to new locations to keep their jobs, Seymour said.
And when the industry does start to recovery, Seymour said it could take weeks or months to get employees back. The company will have to reach out to employees to see if they plan to return and find out where they are located.
It could take 12 to 15 months to retrain pilots who are out on leave, Tajer said, especially if airlines try to bring them all back at once.
“What we do know is that when a recovery comes, if you aren’t prepared, you will lose,” he said.