July 20, 2020
US Airlines Warn of Possible Impending Furloughs
The US airline industry continues to struggle with how to manage the significant loss of income due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Low ridership, combined with the steady uptick in both positive cases and quarantining people, continues to strain the travel industry as a whole and airlines in particular.
In a recent statement, Southwest Airlines Chief Executive Gary Kelly put a numerical threshold on the problem, saying passenger numbers needed to triple its current business to avoid layoffs by year’s end. “Furloughs and layoffs remain our very last resort; we can’t rule them out as a possibility obviously in this very bad environment… (recent spikes and restrictions) are not positive developments for our business, and we are concerned about the impact on already weak travel demand.”
This announcement comes on the heels of a recent announcement from United Airlines, which indicated furloughs may loom for nearly half of the company’s frontline employees, though the company later clarified that not everyone who receives a notice would be out of a job. And American Airlines said it was considering sending out similar warnings that could be delivered with “early exit” packages for certain employees. Delta Airlines also said the company must “get smaller as we look ahead to the recovery, which is likely to be lengthy and slow…”
All of this is happening even as some airlines continue to limit passengers on their planes in an effort to mitigate the risk of transferring COVID-19 among the passengers. While American and United are once again booking flights to capacity, JetBlue and Delta continue to keep the middle seat open, hoping to encourage passengers to opt for their flights.
Staffing issues are twofold for each of these airlines. They need skilled and qualified people willing to work in the conditions presented by air travel, and they need to be able to pay these people while remaining a viable business. These challenges present unique and difficult communications opportunities.
These brands – and other businesses in various industries – are best served by keeping an ongoing dialogue with all stakeholders, helping them understand the situation clearly while also presenting a hopeful view of the future. The industry is different now, and so changes will have to be made. And, yet, the future can look bright from a big picture standpoint. This will likely mean bad news along the way, but much of this is outside the control of decision-makers. That said, the lack of control should not be seen as an issue for decision-makers to appear callous to the hopes and fears their employees face.