United Airlines will slash nearly 36,000 jobs as COVID crushes air travel

United Airlines plans to furlough as many as 35,902 U.S. employees on Oct. 1, the latest and most painful step the country’s dominant airline has announced in its attempts to soften the blow of the coronavirus pandemic on its business.

United, which employs roughly 95,000 people around the globe — 7,000 of them in the Denver area as of earlier this year — informed U.S. employees of the impending staff cuts Wednesday morning, according to a letter shared with media.

“After months of aggressive cost-cutting and proactive capital-raising, today we updated employees about a topic we’ve always dreaded and the action that was always a last resort in the context of this COVID-19 pandemic: involuntary furloughs,” the letter says.

Individual employees won’t know for sure if they will lose their jobs until late August, after the airline sees how many workers opt for voluntary programs such as early separation agreements. The furloughs are indefinite. Workers who lose their jobs will be first in line to rejoin United when it starts hiring again, company executives say, but that is subject to returning demand for air travel.

United’s business is down 75% compared to last July, according to Wednesday’s letter. The airline expects its schedule to be down 65% in August. The lack of business travel, in particular, has hurt United, which has hubs in business centers like Newark, N.J., Chicago and Houston, according to executives.

“And now, given the recent resurgence of COVID-19 cases across the country, it’s increasingly likely that travel demand will not return to normal until there is a widely available treatment or vaccine,” reads Wednesday’s letter.

Recent surges in states like Texas, Florida and Arizona have dimmed the prospects of summer air travel improving. New York and some other states have restricted visitors from specific states.

Aside from offering voluntary job separation packages — about 3,700 employees already have left the company through those programs since the pandemic began, officials say — United has also sought to shore up its long-term health through other means. It has slashed its management and administration staff by 30% and will not be paying its president or CEO salaries through the end of the year. Loans, new aircraft financing and an equity offering brought in $4 billion in cash. The airline also leveraged its frequent flyer program, MileagePlus, to secure $6.8 billion, according to Wednesday’s letter.

But it’s not enough.

United has been at the forefront of pushing for government support for the airline industry, with former CEO Oscar Munoz warning Congress in March of potentially painful job cuts if bailout money was not made available. The company received $4.5 billion in direct CARES Act money and another $5 billion in payroll support program funds, but that money will run out this fall and company leaders are not optimistic more support will be coming.

The furloughs are expected to touch all corners of United’s business, with as many as 15,100 flight attendants, 2,250 pilots and 11,082 gate and ticking agents among the cuts.

It is not clear year how many Denver employees will be subject to the furlough program. In addition to a hub at Denver International Airport that the airline agreed to grow by 24 gates earlier this year, the company also operates a catering kitchen and flight training center in the city.

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