United’s Hong Kong Crew Attempts Avoiding Job Losses Through Arbitration

**UPDATE: 08/11/20 @ 18:20 UTC – A United spokesperson shared information on the closure of some non-US bases; details below**

Amid impending job losses, United’s flight attendants union will undergo expedited arbitration. The union hopes to save jobs of almost 700 of United’s non-US based crew, which includes 230 attendants in Hong Kong.

United Airlines Hong Kong Crew
Over 200 of United’s Hong Kong crew may lose their jobs in October. Photo: United Airlines

In July, United revealed that it would send out WARN notices to some 36,000 crew, which translates to 45% of its workforce. The most affected of the lot are flight attendants, as 60% are to receive the warning.

After the CARES Act expires at the end of September, a slew of employees will most definitely find themselves jobless. Following the news of potential furloughs on October 1st, the union is acting quickly to save the jobs of United’s flight attendants that are based overseas.

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Several bases affected

Hong Kong is a strategic location for an airline base, considering its proximity to several countries in the region. United has flown to Singapore, Bangkok, Delhi, Los Angeles, and Chicago from this base. Unfortunately, times are tough, and the carrier is bent on right-sizing its operations.

The Hong Kong base is not the only non-US station affected. In fact, United has closed down Tokyo’s Narita and Frankfurt bases in June. The crew at these locations will only know their fate next month. A United spokesperson told Simple Flying that flight attendant bases in the three cities are closed. The spokesperson added,

“In the current and near-term business environment, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, those bases [Hong Kong, Narita, and Frankfurt] are unfortunately not financially viable.”

United Airlines furlough
The union aims to use arbitration to settle the furlough dispute. Photo: Getty Images

According to the South China Morning Post, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA believes those at-risk should be allowed to move to London and keep their jobs.

As cited in SCMP, the union chief, Kimberly Johnson, said,

“We want United to honor our contract and find [full-time] positions for these 689 flight attendants. And that solution would be to allow these flight attendants to transfer into the London base or allow these to participate in the voluntary furlough.”

Non-US crew overlooked

While United offered part-time work in London, the union rejected this plan citing issues of “excessive commute for the Hong Kong members” and forming “two sets” of flight attendants. Instead, the association is fighting for all staff to keep their full-time positions in London, or for United to reopen Narita’s base and take in all 689 crew from non-US stations.

United Airlines
United Airlines does not foresee any full-time job openings in London for its non-US crew. Photo: Getty Images

Johnson also cites the fact that the non-US crew did not have to possess a US passport when they were hired. As such, she believes the carrier should not neglect its non-US employees.

Some of them, while not citizens of the United States, have reached a seniority level, working with the airline for 25-30 years. These individuals hail from mainland China, Taiwan, Thailand, Canada, Australia, Japan, Malaysia, and several other countries.

However, at the moment, United says it does not foresee vacancies at its London station. The spokesperson explained,

“Flight attendants at the affected bases may transfer to one of our other bases with vacancies and where they have the legal right to work. However, at this time there are unfortunately no current or anticipated vacancies at our London Heathrow base.”

What is arbitration?

As an agreement between the airline and the union has not been reached, the association is resorting to arbitration. Arbitration is an alternative avenue of settling disputes without having to step foot in court. Essentially, both parties are to agree on submitting a dispute to appointed arbitrators. The arbitrators will then make an informed and binding decision.

Not only does the arbitration process have to be consensual, but it is also confidential. Parties are also required to select neutral arbitrators, ensuring there is no biasedness.

Qatar Boeing 777-300 Getty
Qatar Airways used arbitration to solve a blockade disagreement. Photo: Getty Images

Arbitration is a common approach to resolving aviation-related disputes. On July 22nd, Qatar Airways filed for international arbitration against the countries that imposed a two-year blockade on the carrier. These nations include Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, and Egypt.

The duration of the entire arbitration process is contingent on how soon the parties file it. Seeing as the union is looking to expedite the process before the impending October furloughs, we may see the matter resolved within the next month.

CARES Act 2.0?

While United has resumed select international flights, travel demand is nowhere near how it was in 2019. To illustrate, the airline will operate only 37% of its schedule as compared to this time last year. The airline reported a loss of $3.3bn for the six months ended June 2020. Even with government bailouts, mass lay-offs seem inevitable in the current US aviation climate.

Delta and United Getty
Major US airlines have resorted to massive lay-offs of its crew due to the pandemic. Photo: Getty Images

As aforementioned, the CARES Act is ending in six weeks. Once the time is up, involuntary furloughs are inevitable. United is not the only airline sending out WARN notices to its employees. Delta Air Lines and American Airlines have done the same.

As such, several US airlines and unions are pushing for a second round of industry support.

Do you think United should close its Hong Kong base? What do you think of the mass lay-offs? Let us know in the comments.