Ethiopian Furloughs Crew As Virus Crisis Affects African Aviation

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Ethiopian Airlines has become the latest airline to ask employees to take unpaid leave. The request comes as Ethiopia reports its first death from COVID-19. The airline is thought to be terminating the contracts of temporary employees. Permanent staff members are being asked to take all their annual leave and up to 90 days of unpaid leave.

Ethiopian Airlines Brussels Airport
Ethiopian Airlines has asked staff to take three months of unpaid leave. Photo: Brussels Airport

Unpaid leave

Africa’s largest airline Ethiopian Airlines is having to make tough decisions regarding the future of its 8,000 employees. As the airline comes under more pressure to cancel flights and prevent the spread of the virus, it is trying to minimize costs.

According to Quartz Africa, a letter was sent to employees this week saying “you are hereby granted 90 consecutive days of leave without pay which will be in effect from April 03, 2020 to July 2nd 2020 after you exhaust all accrued and prorated vacation days”.

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However, in a statement to Quartz, the airline refuted the rumors of unpaid leave by saying,

As our flights to over 87 destinations suspended and over 80 of our fleets are grounded, we have instructed some of our workers to take a paid leave”.

According to the same letter, the airline does not want to terminate any jobs but is simply asking for staff to take leave.

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Protecting jobs

The airline seems to be following in the footsteps of most other carriers in trying to preserve jobs in the long run. It is increasing the number of cargo flights it is operating in an attempt to offset losses. It is also taking the time to undertake some aircraft maintenance as well as operating repatriation flights.

Ethiopian Airlines cargo
The airline is concentrating on cargo flights and repatriation operations. Photo: Alan Wilson via Flickr

The airline operates flights to around 80 destinations and is well-placed to use its network to ship goods around the world, as well as repatriating stranded travelers. Operations have already been reduced to just 30 countries due to travel restrictions. Because of these other sources of revenue, some are suggesting the airline could do more to offer employees compensation.

Compensation

Ethiopian has yet to comment on whether it will be asking employees to take voluntary early retirement or long-term leave packages. The airline grew rapidly over recent years investing in aircraft leases, terminal expansions, and network changes. However, the airline’s fatal Boeing 737 MAX crash last year marked the start of a difficult period.

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Ethiopian Airlines Addis Ababa
Ethiopian Airlines has grown rapidly in recent years and has invested in its Addis Ababa hub. Photo: Alan Wilson via Flickr

While the crash led to the eventual grounding of the 737 MAX aircraft around the world, the airline’s own safety record was also called into question. Some even said the airline was sacrificing safety standards in order to facilitate growth. Ethiopian was relying on its order of 25 MAX aircraft to allow for further growth.

Now, as Ethiopia experienced its first death from coronavirus, travel restrictions are no doubt going to get stricter. Although Ethiopian is doing all it can to keep flying, it may find its operations restricted further. Finding the right balance between compensating employees and keeping the airline afloat is going to be difficult. Hopefully, it can find a way to help employees during this difficult time. The airline has not yet responded to our request for comment.

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