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United Airlines Could Furlough 36,000 Workers as Virus Cases Soar


United Airlines said on Wednesday that it could furlough as many as 36,000 employees, or nearly 40 percent of its global work force, this fall if travel remained weak and more workers did not accept concessions like reduced hours or buyout and early retirement packages.

The furloughs, detailed in a memo sent to staff members, would be part of what were expected to be deep, industrywide cuts starting Oct. 1, when a $25 billion federal stimulus program for passenger airlines ends. That aid, intended to help cover payroll expenses, came with restrictions against substantial staffing cuts through Sept. 30.

“The reality is that United simply cannot continue at our current payroll level past Oct. 1 in an environment where travel demand is so depressed,” the airline told employees. “And involuntary furloughs come as a last resort, after months of companywide cost-cutting and capital raising.”

The furloughs would include about 15,000 flight attendants, 11,000 customer service and gate agents, 5,500 maintenance employees, and 2,250 pilots. United could cut fewer employees if ticket sales pick up significantly or if many thousands of workers accept fewer hours or apply for buyouts and early retirement packages before a mid-July deadline. Workers will know if they are being furloughed by the end of August, and most will be eligible to return to work when travel picks up. United is also cutting about a third of management and administrative employees.

“The United Airlines projected furlough numbers are a gut punch, but they are also the most honest assessment we’ve seen on the state of the industry,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants union, which represents nearly 50,000 workers at 19 airlines, including United.

In a statement, Ms. Nelson called on Congress to extend federal aid “to avoid hundreds of thousands of layoffs from an industry that normally drives economic activity.”

For months, major airlines have been warning workers that they may have to make substantial cuts after the funding dries up, and most have encouraged employees to voluntarily accept pay cuts, buyouts or early retirement. Last week, American Airlines said that it expected to have about 20,000 more employees than it needed this fall, though the airline said that it may not end up furloughing all of those workers.

Even before Congress threw the industry a lifeline in March, United had warned workers that the coronavirus pandemic could force its hand. At a company town hall event that month, Scott Kirby, then the airline’s president and now its chief executive, said that United had two goals: survive the crisis and avoid furloughs. But he said he could not promise workers that their jobs would be secure.

Air travel has rebounded after falling about 96 percent in April, but the recovery has been choppy and is expected to remain uneven. The number of people going through airport security is still down about 75 percent compared with last year. Some experts fear that the numbers could start falling again as infections climb across much of the United States, including in California, Florida and Texas.

United on Tuesday said that it was paring the August schedule it announced only last week because bookings had begun sliding again amid the surge in virus cases and after New York, Connecticut and New Jersey said they would require travelers from states with rising infection rates to quarantine themselves for two weeks. United now expects to operate about 25 percent as many flights this month as it did last July and about 35 percent in August compared with the same month last year. The airline also said it expected the rest of the year to look much like August.

  • Updated July 7, 2020

    • Is the coronavirus airborne?

      The coronavirus can stay aloft for hours in tiny droplets in stagnant air, infecting people as they inhale, mounting scientific evidence suggests. This risk is highest in crowded indoor spaces with poor ventilation, and may help explain super-spreading events reported in meatpacking plants, churches and restaurants. It’s unclear how often the virus is spread via these tiny droplets, or aerosols, compared with larger droplets that are expelled when a sick person coughs or sneezes, or transmitted through contact with contaminated surfaces, said Linsey Marr, an aerosol expert at Virginia Tech. Aerosols are released even when a person without symptoms exhales, talks or sings, according to Dr. Marr and more than 200 other experts, who have outlined the evidence in an open letter to the World Health Organization.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

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      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

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      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

Like other major airlines, United has been making deep cuts wherever it can, postponing spending, grounding planes and freezing merit raises and nonessential hiring. Still, it is losing about $40 million in cash each day. Delta Air Lines is suffering similar losses, while American Airlines is losing about $35 million each day.

To manage what most in the industry expect will be a yearslong recovery, the major airlines have amassed huge war chests. United said last month that it expected to end June with about $9.4 billion in cash, compared with about $11 billion for American and more than $15 billion for Delta.

The airlines expect to continue building up those reserves. In addition to the $25 billion set aside to pay airline employees, Congress authorized an equal amount in loans for the industry. In the past week, American, Delta and United have reached agreements with the Treasury Department on loan terms under that program. American is the only one of those airlines to confirm that it will indeed borrow money, $4.75 billion, from the federal government under the program. Other airlines are expected to do so soon.


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