For months, major airlines have warned they’d have to lay off thousands of workers when funding from the coronavirus financial relief law ran out in September. Now, that process is underway for about 1,200 Philadelphia-based employees of American Airlines, the region’s dominant air carrier.
Most of those affected in Philly are flight attendants: 740 are losing their jobs, according to their union, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants.
“The numbers alone for the flight attendants just blow me away for Philadelphia,” union spokesperson Paul Hartshorn Jr. said. Those job losses represent about a quarter of the 2,800 American flight attendants who were based in Philadelphia as of January.
Many of American’s Philadelphia flight attendants were newer hires, Hartshorn said, meaning they were more likely to lose their jobs because of lower seniority. On a company-wide basis, American said it was planning to furlough 8,100 flight attendants — the largest of any work group — according to an August securities filing.
“They’re not just losing their money; they’re losing access to health care,” Hartshorn said. Depending on employees’ length of service, he said, they will keep pay and benefits between two weeks and three months after being furloughed.
Passenger volume plummeted in the spring, down about 95% at PHL during a low point in April. Conditions that came with the CARES Act funding kept many airline employees attached to their jobs — and their health benefits — even as airlines faced low demand and pared-back flight schedules. American Airlines was the city’s ninth-largest employer in early 2020 before COVID, state records show.
But once the law’s Payroll Support Program expired Sept. 30, American Airlines started furloughing 19,000 employees company-wide.
“Despite enormous bipartisan support for an extension of the [Payroll Support Program], our elected officials have not been able to reach agreement on a COVID-19 relief package that would enable this extension,” American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said in a message to employees last week.
Parker said that he told Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that if negotiations between the White House and Congress are successful “over the next few days, we will reverse our furlough processes and recall any impacted team members.”
Furloughs, which began on Oct. 1, are to hit all work groups, including flight attendants, pilots, customer service, fleet service, and maintenance
Yussef Ortolaza, a 29-year-old flight attendant who has now lost his job with American, said he was mainly disappointed in the government’s failure to enact a new relief package for workers.
“I had this strong feeling that they’re going to realize that we’ve been working throughout this whole pandemic … being away from our families, and transporting people like doctors and nurses,” he said. And instead: “Nothing has happened.”
Ortolaza and his spouse bought a house in January. He has to keep up with mortgage payments, and he expects that finding new health insurance will be more expensive than what he’s had with American. “A lot of us are so worried about the health care,” he said. “People are just scrambling to find another option.”
At least one air carrier — Frontier Airlines — said it has avoided furloughs that were anticipated earlier. In August, the company warned state regulators of 215 potential Philadelphia job losses.
“We have since reached agreements with our unions and no longer anticipate any furloughs,” Frontier spokesperson Zach Kramer said Monday.
Total passenger traffic at PHL was down nearly 71% in August, compared with the same month a year ago, according to the airport’s most recent report on activity.
“American continues to adjust our flight schedule based on customer demand,” spokesperson Andrew Trull said Monday. “As a result of the coronavirus, American plans to operate less than 50% of our planned schedule through the fourth quarter of the year.”