Airlines

United postpones new pilot class and warns of additional flight cuts amid coronavirus outbreak

Key Points
  • United has also allowed some widebody pilots to take a month off at reduced pay.
  • The carrier has reduced service throughout Asia because of the coronavirus outbreak.
  • U.S. airlines have suspended flights to mainland China and Hong Kong.
A United Airlines Boeing 737 passenger jet takes off at San Antonio International Airport in Texas.
Robert Alexander

United Airlines is postponing start dates for some new pilots this month and warned about further flight reductions, the carrier confirmed Sunday.

A 23-person class of pilots that was supposed to start training this week has been postponed. CNBC had reported the schedule change earlier on Sunday. The delay comes as the COVID-19 outbreak spreads, prompting United and its competitors to scale back some international routes. Pilot training can take several months before aviators start flying for the airline.

The coronavirus is a new challenge for airlines that have been dealing with slower-than-expected growth because of the nearly yearlong grounding of the Boeing 737 Max after two fatal crashes.

In a note to employees sent Saturday, United CEO Oscar Munoz praised employees for how they've handled the abrupt changes and outlined additional materials, such as gloves and cleaning materials, sent to crews and vendors in areas that have been hit with the outbreak.

"I am confident that our deeply embedded safety practices and commitment to health and safety puts us a step ahead in terms of keeping our aircraft and workspaces clean and sanitary," wrote Munoz, who is handing the reins over to United's president, Scott Kirby, in May.

Munoz told employees that "we are strategically managing our Atlantic and domestic service, mindful of travel directives from the federal government, fluctuating demand and of course, the advice of public health experts," Munoz wrote. "Based on current trends, it is likely that additional schedule reductions will be necessary."

United is also offering some pilots who fly the widebody aircraft used on trans-Pacific routes a month off at reduced pay after the airline cut some of its Asia flights, according to a memo sent Friday by the United pilots' union.  United has "worked with our union partners to offer pilots associated with those changes the opportunity to voluntarily adjust their near-term schedules, as we do whenever business needs allow," a spokeswoman said. "Moving forward, we will continue to evaluate the impact of COVID-19 and work closely with our labor partners to help manage our business to minimize the operational and financial disruption of the outbreak."

Airlines have ramped up their pilot hiring in recent years as they faced increasing demand and more pilots near the federally mandated retirement age of 65. Earlier this month, United announced the purchase of a flight-training academy, which is called the United Aviate Academy, to train its future pilots. 

"We are on track to open the United Aviate Academy later this year and our plan to hire more than 10,000 pilots by 2029 remains unchanged," the United spokeswoman said.

Airlines around the world have been reassessing their routes as the new coronavirus spreads beyond China, where most of the more than 87,000 cases have been reported. A series of new travel advisories and restrictions and the spread of the virus itself to other countries, including South Korea and Italy, has driven down demand to those destinations.

On Sunday, Delta Air Lines said it will suspend this week its service between New York and Milan until early May. The move came hours after American Airlines said it would suspend its flights from New York and Miami to Milan until April 25.  "American continues to review the airline's flight schedule to ensure that customers' needs are accommodated and will make additional refinements as necessary," the airline said in a statement.

United on Friday reduced its service throughout Asia. Delta Air Lines took a similar step, cutting its weekly flights to South Korea to 15 a week from 28. U.S. airlines have all suspended their flights to Hong Kong and mainland China.

United on Friday announced it would postpone its investor day, which was scheduled for next Thursday because it "does not believe it is practical to expect that it can have a productive conversation focused on its long-term strategy next week."

U.S. airline stocks tumbled more sharply than the broader market's rout as investors fretted about a broad drop in travel demand.

VIDEO0:5600:56
United postpones next week's analyst day