US airline workers have been largely spared from the carnage that’s pushed the country’s unemployment to record highs since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. But those same workers — roughly 750,000 pilots, flight attendants, baggage handlers, mechanics and others — will soon be among the most at-risk for losing their jobs.
The federal bailout for the airline industry barred layoffs, involuntary furloughs or pay cuts for employees. But executives have been blunt that job cuts are coming once that prohibition lifts on October 1, with estimates that up to a third of the sector’s jobs could disappear.
The airlines have already requested that workers take voluntary unpaid or low-paid leaves. About 100,000 workers at the four largest carriers — American, United, Delta and Southwest — have done so, equal to about 26% of those companies’ staffs at the end of 2019.
But even with that level of voluntary leaves, $25 billion in grants and low-interest loans from the federal bailout known as the CARES Act, airlines are hemorrhaging millions of dollars a day. The first-quarter losses in the industry topped $2 billion. The second quarter will be much worse.
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