Just a few months ago, the aviation industry was booming. U.S. airlines were carrying a daily average of 2.5 million passengers on roughly 28,000 flights worldwide. By early 2020, U.S. passenger airlines had reached their highest employment levels since 2002, with more than 450,000 full-time employees.
But as pilots know, every ascent is followed by a descent.
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a severe drop in demand for business and leisure travel, dealing a devastating blow to the aviation industry. Combined daily passenger traffic numbers at U.S. airports fell to a low of 87,534 in mid-April—a more than 90 percent decrease from daily averages the year before.
Seasoned airline employees have gone through economic recessions before, including those related to the Gulf War in the early 1990s, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the 2008 Great Recession.
“Everything was moving like crazy, and then it was like somebody just shut the door,” explained an American Airlines first officer who did not want his name published.
The pandemic marks the second recession of his flying career.
“It wears on me and my family. When you don’t know what’s happening and you have a possible furlough on the horizon, it’s like the elephant in the room,” he said.
And furloughs are certainly on the horizon, particularly for some of the major U.S. carriers.
Airlines prepare to furlough thousands
Just one month into the economic crisis, more than 3,200 planes were idled at airports across the country. With large numbers of unused aircraft, airlines also have retired portions of their fleets to prepare for downsizing their networks and operations.
Additional data provided by trade group Airlines for America shows that U.S. airlines were burning through about $10 billion per month in March, a figure that is now around $5 billion.
As part of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act assistance package passed by Congress in March, many airlines applied for a payroll assistance program. In order to accept the federal aid, airlines have been required to adhere to specific guidelines, including maintaining a percentage of flights at airports the airlines currently serve and retaining employees through the end of September.
Last week, United Airlines announced it may need to furlough about 36,000 of its employees once that grace period is over—about 45 percent of its domestic workforce.
The world’s largest carrier, Fort-Worth, Texas-based American Airlines, anticipates it could have up to a 30 percent surplus of workers by this fall.
While Delta Air Lines hasn’t specified its projections for its entire workforce, the airline sent warning notices of potential furloughs to some 2,500 pilots in early July.
Additionally, the three airlines are offering various early retirement, voluntary leave and reduced hours programs.
Likewise, Dallas-based Southwest Airlines has offered early retirement and other buyout packages for its employees in an attempt to avoid involuntary furloughs. In 49 years of operations, the company has never had to lay off or furlough its employees. But in a document shared with Southwest employees last month, airline leadership expressed plans to reduce capacity by about 30 percent in the fall, adding that it’s possible Southwest will be overstaffed by about the same percentage.
Pilots from at least one major U.S. airline could be safe, though.
The labor union representing JetBlue Airways pilots has reached an agreement with the airline to protect JetBlue pilots from an involuntary furlough through April 2021.
At this point, much is unclear. Airlines can really only estimate the number of employees they will need to furlough by the fall. Early retirement and early leave programs are factors in determining how many employees will actually lose their jobs, as is the direction of the economy.
‘It really weighs on you’
While airline furloughs will affect employees across the board, including flight attendants, ramp agents and customer service representatives, as well as other front-line and corporate jobs, pilots arguably face a more complex situation.
It takes years of costly training to become a pilot, and flying is a skill that must be maintained.
“Let’s say I don’t fly for six months and other airlines start hiring,” explained a first officer for CommutAir, a regional airline that operates under the United Airlines network, who did not want his name published. “I wouldn’t have the recent experience to show. Some airlines require pilots to have at least 300 hours of flying in the past calendar year. If I’m furloughed for six months, I’m never going to see that and I won’t be eligible.”
If and when pilots are called back from a furlough, airlines will then provide the necessary training and flight simulator time to qualify them to return to the cockpit.
Technically, furloughs are meant to be a temporary leave of absence. Furloughed workers have the option to remain employed, without pay, and have the possibility of eventually returning to work, based on the airline’s needs. Staff can be called back from a furlough in the order of highest to lowest seniority.
Depending on how long the effects of the pandemic will last, some pilots may not have the option to wait for a call that could take years to come.
“It really weighs on you, but it’s an industry you love,” said the American Airlines first officer.
“There’s not many people in aviation that do it because it’s just a job. They do it because they enjoy what they do. To have a future where you may not be able to do what you love to do, that’s the hardest thing.”
Now, with potentially thousands of furloughs coming, students in the process of becoming pilots could have a very different future ahead of them.
Jenna Achtzehn, a 20-year-old from Greensburg, Pa., is one of those students. She currently attends Moore Aviation, a flight training school in Beaver County.
“It’s stressful to think about, because we were supposed to be entering this industry at a great time,” said Achtzehn. “Airlines were giving big bonuses to recruit pilots, and now that could all be gone. Right now, our future is foggy; we don’t know how the industry will recover, or when it will.”
Achtzehn is continuing her training and expects to become a certified flight instructor soon, a step many students take to continue earning flight hours and work toward eventually earning an airline transport pilot license (ATP) to become eligible to fly as first officer for an airline.
While furloughs could temporarily lower the demand for pilots, a driving cause of the pilot shortage stands: the shortage projections were largely based on an aging workforce. In its 2019 Pilot & Technician Outlook, Boeing stated that “several hundred thousand” pilots and technicians are expected to reach retirement age in the next decade. So when demand for travel rebounds, the need for pilots is likely to return.
“My flight instructor has told me he’s seen this happen before [with the recession following 9/11],” Achtzehn said. “But he said to keep a positive outlook. It could take a few years to recover from this, but the industry will definitely recover.”
Calm before the storm
Considering the likelihood of thousands of pilot furloughs, many are left with nothing to do but prepare for what’s next. For some, this means considering early retirement options or voluntary furloughs to spare the airline and their colleagues.
“I know other people who are worried; they have kids and people they’re looking out for,” explained the CommutAir pilot. “Which is why, if I have a choice, I’ll probably just take a voluntary furlough because I can afford to be away, and that gives someone else a spot to be able to work.”
Recently, JetBlue Airways captain Emerick Aulicino of Pittsburgh decided to retire a few months shy of his 65th birthday.
He could have continued flying until he turned 65 in September, and JetBlue has agreed to protect its pilots from involuntary furloughs. But the captain with 32 years of flying experience figured the timing was right.
“Having gone through [recessions] before with a young family, I understand exactly how some of these pilots are feeling,” he said. “We just don’t know when things are going to turn around, and there could be massive layoffs again. There could be thousands of pilots looking for flying jobs that are just nonexistent.”
For others, time spent between now and Oct. 1 will be spent saving money and planning.
“I know they [American] are doing everything they can to prevent furloughs and I’m grateful, but it may be inevitable,” said the American Airlines first officer. “I’m trying to bid and get as much [flying] time and as many hours as I can. I’m obviously also looking at jobs outside. I’m trying to put things in place in case we need a fallback income. Whatever I can do, you know? I’ll do what I have to do.”