U.S. airline employment to reach lowest levels in decades after pandemic cuts 90,000 jobs

Key Points
  • U.S. airline job cuts are set to fall by about 90,000 full-time equivalent positions by year's end.
  • A surge in coronavirus cases is keeping a lid on demand, even around the popular year-end holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas.
  • Delta and Southwest warned of challenges in the coming months because of the pandemic.
A United Airlines plane takes off above American Airlines planes on the tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on October 1, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.
Mario Tama | Getty Images

U.S. airline employment will soon fall to the lowest level since the mid-1980s, the result of the pandemic's devastating impact on the sector, an industry group said Thursday.

Airlines will have cut the equivalent of about 90,000 jobs by year-end, including more than 30,000 furloughs at airlines like United and American that began last month and the departure of thousands of other workers who accepted buyouts from Southwest, Delta and other carriers.

Passenger carriers and their employees' labor unions have repeatedly urged Congress for a second $25 billion federal aid package to preserve jobs through March, but Democrats and Republicans haven't reached an agreement on a new national coronavirus stimulus package or for aid solely for the battered sector.

The industry's workforce in the fourth quarter will fall to about 370,000 full-time equivalent jobs, from 460,000 in March, according to Airlines for America, a trade group that represents the major U.S. airlines.

Air travel demand has begun to recover from more than five-decade lows hit in April, early in the pandemic, but it remains a fraction of last year's levels. Since the start of October, the Transportation Security Administration screened 34 million people, down nearly 65% from the 97 million people who went through airport checkpoints during the same time last year.

Thanksgiving will provide only a modest uptick in demand, and airline executives on Thursday highlighted continued challenges facing the business in the pandemic.

Airlines for America said U.S. carriers' Thanksgiving-week capacity will be down close to 39% from a year ago, compared with a 47% drop in the first 2½ weeks of November.

Southwest on Thursday said a revenue rebound appeared to be losing steam for November and December bookings.

"While the Company expected the election to impact trends, it is unclear whether the softness in booking trends is also a direct result of the recent rise in COVID-19 cases," Southwest said in a filing. "As such, the Company remains cautious in this uncertain revenue environment." 

Delta CEO Ed Bastian noted the optimism following positive results from a Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine trial released this week, news that sent airline stocks soaring, but warned the industry isn't out of the woods.

"Keep in mind that while developing a vaccine is an important step, widespread distribution will take many months, so we continue to expect 2021 will be a year with continued challenges," he said in a staff note.