United, pilots agree on schedule reductions to avoid nearly 3,000 furloughs

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A pilot walks by United Airlines planes as they sit parked at gates at San Francisco International Airport on April 12, 2020 in San Francisco, California.

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

United Airlines‘ pilots approved a plan to avoid furloughs that were set to begin as early as next month, the company said Monday, marking the latest cost-cutting deal between an airline and one of its biggest labor groups during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Chicago-based carrier earlier this month said it planned to furlough 2,850 pilots, starting Oct. 1, when $25 billion in federal aid that protects airline-sector jobs expires. It later reached a preliminary agreement with the pilots’ union to reduce schedules and maintain pay rates, which was later approved by the union members.

The airline is still planning to cut more than 13,000 jobs beginning next month. American Airlines is planning to slash about 19,000 jobs. Tens of thousands of other employees across airlines have accepted carriers’ offers of buyouts or leaves of absence aimed at reducing headcount.

Airlines are hesitant to furlough pilots because their training is costly and time-consuming. While United CEO Scott Kirby has said he doesn’t expect demand to return to more than half of 2019 levels without a vaccine, he has emphasized that the carrier should be ready to take advantage of a recovery.

“While we still face a difficult path to recovery, your support of this creative and unique agreement puts us in an unparalleled position of strength when demand recovers,” United’s senior vice president of flight operations, Bryan Quigley, wrote in a staff note Monday. “In addition to avoiding furloughs, this agreement greatly enhances our ability to bounce back – so we can welcome more passengers and return to the 2019 levels of seat and fleet advancement more quickly.”

Labor unions and airline executives are urging lawmakers for an additional $25 billion in aid that would preserve jobs through the end of March. Further aid has won bipartisan support in Congress and from President Donald Trump. But lawmakers so far haven’t reached a new national coronavirus stimulus package that would include the aid, though House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Sunday that another relief proposal is possible.

United’s shares were trading near session highs after the announcement, up 6.5%.

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