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A year after slashing staff, airlines are getting ready for a hiring binge

The latest sign of air travel returning to normal is the two words being repeated at most of the nation's major airlines: Help wanted.The three larges...

Posted: Jun 6, 2021 11:24 AM

The latest sign of air travel returning to normal is the two words being repeated at most of the nation's major airlines: Help wanted.

The three largest US carriers — American, United and Delta — have announced they are currently hiring or will do so before the end of the year. Southwest, which cut less of its staff during the pandemic than its three larger rivals, said it is preparing its own hiring process as well.

"I think the current carriers are eager to get as many flights back in the air as possible," said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, one of the major airline unions. The labor group expects the number of flight attendants on the job to rise from 80,000 today to 100,000 within two years. "At the beginning of 2020, all [of the airlines] said they'd be hiring thousands," Nelson said. "Really what we're doing is catching back up where we're supposed to be."

The hiring initiatives come sooner than many expected.

"I would say it's somewhat surprising that they're talking about it now, but it's certainly an indication of the confidence there will be a substantial recovery by the year's end," said Philip Baggaley, chief credit analyst for airlines at Standard & Poor's.

Leisure travel on the rise

Air traffic is still not back to pre-pandemic levels — business travel is still a fraction of what it was, as is international travel. It is expected to take years for those lucrative sectors to return to normal. But leisure traffic and bookings are already approaching pre-Covid levels, lifting fares and increasing the immediate need for staff.

US airline employment was at a post-9/11 high just before the pandemic hit, with 757,000 workers — both full and part-time — in February 2020, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That was the equivalent of nearly 500,000 full-time employees.

The nation's 11 publicly traded airlines reported they cut 18% of jobs during the course of 2020, through buyouts, early retirement packages, and employees who took voluntary unpaid leaves but kept benefits and, in some cases, part of their pay. Those on voluntary leaves with benefits were counted as part-time workers in the government's employment figures.

The low point in employment came in October, when a government prohibition on airlines making involuntary layoffs, a provision in the first round of federal financial support, came to an end. But many of those laid-off workers came back when a second round of federal help was passed in December, and a third round has helped keep them on payrolls.

More importantly, as vaccination rates rose and travelers started returning to the skies, the airlines began calling back workers who had been on voluntary leave. The total number of part-time and full-time employees had risen 6% through March, according to the BTS, and is expected to climb higher through the rest of this year, although the airlines have not given hard targets for how many workers they plan to hire back.

"We're going to have needs throughout the network," said Rober Isom, president of American Airlines.

The carriers are going to try to get by with fewer employees in some positions, including reduced staffing at airport gates and permanent cuts to the number of managers. United said it expects to save $300 million a year in management compensation alone.

Unlike some low-paying industries, such as retail and hospitality, Nelson said she doesn't believe the airlines will have trouble attracting workers. Flight attendant jobs pay an average annual salary of $50,000 to $60,000 at the major airlines, she said. Pilots at those airlines earn more than twice that amount. But there will be a need for more pilots and flight attendants to fill positions left vacant through early retirement packages accepted in 2020.

"People took an early out or retired sooner than they were planning to before the pandemic," Nelson said. "Some quit because it's not the same job." The rise in confrontations between passengers and flight attendants prompted some workers to leave the industry in the last year, she added, though the overwhelming majority want to stay on the job.

"This is a job that gets in your blood," Nelson said.

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 603760

Reported Deaths: 7605
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin1247651771
Ramsey52437895
Dakota46772469
Anoka42693458
Washington27391290
Stearns22545224
St. Louis18120311
Scott17536134
Wright16400148
Olmsted13386102
Sherburne1199494
Carver1065848
Clay825492
Rice8186110
Blue Earth762343
Crow Wing681194
Kandiyohi667185
Chisago619152
Otter Tail585684
Benton582798
Goodhue483373
Douglas475381
Mower470733
Winona460851
Itasca458663
Isanti439564
McLeod429161
Morrison424361
Nobles407950
Beltrami406960
Steele397416
Polk388872
Becker386555
Lyon363853
Carlton352556
Freeborn346832
Pine335023
Nicollet330945
Mille Lacs311454
Brown307840
Le Sueur297125
Todd285632
Cass285532
Meeker263042
Waseca237823
Martin234932
Roseau210721
Wabasha20783
Hubbard196041
Dodge18773
Renville182346
Redwood176338
Houston174016
Cottonwood167124
Wadena162422
Fillmore157410
Faribault154319
Chippewa153838
Pennington153820
Kanabec146828
Sibley146810
Aitkin138637
Watonwan13589
Rock128719
Jackson122612
Pipestone116626
Yellow Medicine114920
Pope11296
Murray107010
Swift106918
Koochiching94617
Stevens92411
Clearwater89016
Marshall88717
Wilkin83112
Lake82920
Lac qui Parle75622
Big Stone6044
Grant5938
Lincoln5843
Mahnomen5669
Norman5479
Kittson49022
Unassigned48093
Red Lake4017
Traverse3755
Lake of the Woods3453
Cook1720

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 370583

Reported Deaths: 6041
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk58186638
Linn21181339
Scott20287246
Black Hawk16065312
Woodbury15227230
Johnson1460585
Dubuque13496211
Dallas1128499
Pottawattamie11214173
Story1070848
Warren583591
Clinton561393
Cerro Gordo553193
Sioux516974
Webster514494
Muscatine4875106
Marshall486376
Des Moines466970
Wapello4333122
Buena Vista426140
Jasper420872
Plymouth402981
Lee381756
Marion365976
Jones300857
Henry294137
Bremer287760
Carroll286752
Boone268334
Crawford267840
Benton258755
Washington256751
Dickinson249344
Mahaska232251
Jackson225242
Clay216527
Kossuth216166
Tama211671
Delaware210943
Winneshiek197735
Page194522
Buchanan193033
Cedar192023
Hardin187344
Fayette186443
Wright185940
Hamilton181751
Harrison179973
Clayton171057
Butler165935
Madison164519
Mills163324
Floyd163042
Cherokee159338
Lyon158841
Poweshiek156936
Allamakee152652
Hancock150134
Iowa149824
Winnebago144331
Cass139255
Calhoun138913
Grundy137133
Emmet135841
Jefferson133535
Shelby131537
Sac130720
Union129935
Louisa129749
Appanoose129049
Mitchell126643
Chickasaw124517
Franklin123323
Guthrie123032
Humboldt119526
Palo Alto113623
Howard105022
Montgomery103638
Clarke100924
Keokuk96432
Monroe96230
Unassigned9540
Ida91535
Adair87332
Pocahontas85822
Davis85225
Monona82931
Osceola79016
Greene78011
Lucas77923
Worth7598
Taylor66712
Fremont6269
Decatur6159
Ringgold56324
Van Buren56318
Wayne54423
Audubon52910
Adams3444
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