WOW: United Airlines Pilots Outnumber Daily Passengers

As air travel continues its staggering decline, and passenger numbers dwindle along with it, airlines are considering how to match supply to a slow-recovery demand. United Airlines has drawn up strategies for how, beginning on the 30th of June, it will decrease its roster of pilots – who by now outnumber the airline’s daily passengers.

United planes SFO
United Airlines has more pilots than passengers. Photo: Getty Images

Displacing a third of pilots from July

Any US airline that has accepted government bailout cash is forbidden from laying off any staff until the 1st of October, according to conditions stipulated in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Security (CARES) package. But of course, airlines are already planning for a future beyond that. United Airlines has now communicated part of its plans to its pilots.

This weekend, United’s Senior Vice President for Flight Operations Bryan Quigley sent a note, reviewed by Simple Flying, to the airline’s pilots outlining plans for the foreseeable future. As of the 30th of June, the airline will be “displacing” 4,457 out of 12,250 slot positions – representing a third of United’s pilots.

“On average we are only carrying about 10,000 passengers per day. About 21% of our mainline flights have fewer than 10 revenue customers on board. We currently have more pilots than passengers on any given day,” the note said.

United pilot displacement
United will be “displacing” a third of its pilot positions from the 30th of June. Photo: Getty Images

Difficult decisions come October

United still has to keep paying pilots until the 30th of September according to the CARES conditions. However, as of the 30th of June, this means that there will be no opportunity for nearly 4,500 of its pilots to bid on a schedule. Come the 1st of October, these slot displacements will most likely translate into job losses unless travel demand bounces back much quicker than anyone is expecting.

“…while the CARES Act Payroll Support Program assistance covers a portion of our payroll costs and protects jobs through September 30, there is no question that we believe we will need to make more difficult decisions after October 1, which may include pilot furloughs. I am not prepared to announce any specific furlough numbers today, but there should be enough information conveyed in this displacement for you to make informed conclusions.” Mr. Quigley further told his staff in the letter.

United will be a smaller airline post-crisis. Photo: United Airlines

Downgrading ranks and retraining

Any job cuts will happen on the basis of seniority. This means that the bottom third of United’s seniority list could be laid off. Many captains will need to be downgraded to first officers as their seniority takes a step back. A substantial amount of pilots will also need to retrain for other types of aircraft than they have previously been flying, a process that can take several weeks.

For instance, widebody Boeing 777 flying will be suppressed for the foreseeable future (operating only out of Newark and San Fransisco), so many pilots will be downgraded to smaller planes. And while the 787 is named the company’s international operations “workhorse” for the near future, it will not be flying out of LAX for up to a year.

Having the CARES cake

It is no secret that airline passenger numbers are at a record low these days. The words “unprecedented” and “precipitous” may never previously have been repeated so often in regards to a drop in demand for anything. Many airlines have warned of lay-offs in the tens of thousands as a result of the impact of the corona-crisis. Others have promised not to in return for state-guaranteed financing. United, it would seem, is doing a bit of both.

How do you feel about United’s stance towards its pilots? Necessary measures for survival, or an overly gloomy scenario? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.