United Pilots Approve Deal To Delay Furloughs If Payroll Support Expires

Credit: United Airlines / Twitter

Pilots at United Airlines ratified a deal that would avoid planned furloughs in the next several months, pushing off any possible involuntary actions until mid-2021 if the U.S. Congress does not provide additional support for the country’s airline industry.

The pilots, represented by the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), ratified a deal agreed to earlier in September that will keep 13,000 pilots employed, less those who take advantage of a new round of early separation options available to pilots aged 50 and older with at least 10 years’ experience. 

In exchange for higher pilot wages, United avoids costly re-training scenarios that furloughs trigger as pilots re-bid for remaining jobs and are often forced to change equipment types. The carrier also maintains flexibility to add flying as demand returns without having to add pilots.

“Our members understood that in order to protect pilot jobs, we needed to approve this agreement,” United ALPA Master Executive Council chairman Todd Insler said. “We’re spreading the existing flying among our pilot group while locking in permanent contractual gains.”

The deal prevents any furloughs until at least June 2021. Before the agreement, United planned to furlough 2,800 pilots through year-end and up to another 1,100 in 2021 as it cuts flying to match lower demand caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

United, like other U.S. airlines and the unions that represent many of their workers, continues to push U.S. lawmakers to extend the CARES Act Payroll Support Program (PSP) and give airlines money to pay their employees in exchange for not laying off anyone for a period of time. 

The terms of the current PSP terms expire Oct. 1, removing the restriction that prevents PSP recipients from involuntarily cutting jobs. If the program is extended in the coming days, implementation of the United-ALPA deal, which effectively cuts the pilots’ pay in exchange for less flying and no furloughs, will be delayed.

If the PSP is not extended, United now expects to cut fewer than 12,000 additional jobs after Oct. 1. This figure is down from 36,000 projected early in the pandemic, with the reduction coming from voluntary measures, including 7,000 early retirements, reduced work schedules, and specific deals including the ALPA agreement.

The airline is still negotiating with several labor groups, and talks could lead to more voluntary outs that would further reduce the 12,000 figure.

Sean Broderick

Senior Air Transport & Safety Editor Sean Broderick covers aviation safety, MRO, and the airline business from Aviation Week Network's Washington, D.C. office.