Unfriendly skies: Airline workers brace for mass layoffs

DETROIT — The worries are growing for United Airlines flight attendant Jordy Comeaux.

In a few days, he’ll be among roughly 40,000 airline workers whose jobs are likely to evaporate in an industry decimated by the coronavirus pandemic.

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Unless Congress acts to help for a second time, United will furlough Comeaux on Thursday, cutting off his income and health insurance. Unemployment and the money made by his husband, a home health nurse, won’t be enough to pay the bills including rent near Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

“I don’t have enough, unfortunately, to get by,” said Comeaux, 31, who has worked for United for four years. “No one knows what’s going to come next and how to prepare.”

Since the pandemic hit, thousands of flight attendants, baggage handlers, gate agents and others have been getting at least partial pay through $25 billion in grants and loans to the nation’s airlines. To receive the aid, companies agreed not to lay off employees through Sept. 30. That “Payroll Support Program” helped many stay on, and keep health care and other benefits.

It all runs out on Thursday.

With air travel down about 70% from last year, many carriers including United and American say they’ll be forced to cut jobs without additional aid.

Delta and Southwest, two other big carriers, tapped private capital markets and say they’ll avoid layoffs.

Industry analysts say fear of air travel and businesses keeping employees close to home have brought an unprecedented crisis to the industry, resulting in cataclysmic losses. The four largest U.S. airlines — Delta, United, American and Southwest — together lost $10 billion in the second quarter alone. Fewer airline passengers also means less demand for rental cars, hotels and restaurants. With demand for new planes down, airplane manufacturer Boeing has cut thousands of jobs. And with tourism down, The Walt Disney Co. said Tuesday it planned to lay off 28,000 workers in its parks division in California and Florida.

“To my understanding, this is the steepest demand shock for commercial aviation in human history,” said Morningstar aviation analyst Burkett Huey.

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The International Air Transport Association on Tuesday lowered its full-year traffic forecast.

The trade group for airlines around the world now expects 2020 air travel to fall 66% from 2019, compared to its previous estimate of a 63% decline.

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