Delta plans to furlough nearly 2,000 pilots in October

A Delta Air Lines jet takes off. AJC file.
A Delta Air Lines jet takes off. AJC file.

Airline continues to operate reduced flight schedule amid pandemic

Delta Air Lines said Monday it plans to furlough 1,941 of its pilots in October amid a steep decline in travel due to the coronavirus pandemic.

That is fewer than the more than 2,500 pilots Delta warned earlier could be furloughed. The Atlanta-based airline said there have been more early retirements than expected, allowing it to return 600 pilots to active status.

Still, the latest plan would trim about one-seventh of Delta’s pilot staffing, underscoring the slow recovery in air traffic. Restrictions on furloughs tied to federal airline rescue funding end Sept. 30.

Delta had been attempting to avoid furloughs by asking employees to take early retirements and buyouts. It has also asked employees to take unpaid leave and reduced pay for ground workers and headquarters employees.

More than 1,800 Delta pilots agreed to retire early and leave the company. But that still wasn’t enough, according to Delta.

In recent months, “our recovery has slowed further,” John Laughter, Delta senior vice president of flight operations, told pilots in a memo Monday. “We are now six months into this pandemic and only 25% of our revenues have been recovered. Unfortunately, we see few catalysts over the next six months to meaningfully change this category.”

Laughter told pilots that “we are simply overstaffed, and we are faced with an incredibly difficult decision.”

The airline said it will need 9,450 pilots to operate flights in its peak summer 2021 schedule, but it still will have about 11,200 pilots on its payroll after early retirements take effect Sept. 1.

A recovery is expected to take multiple years. Laughter said the company would try to return pilots to work “as soon as we can, if demand recovers better than we are anticipating.”

If management can reach a deal with the pilots union to “meaningfully spread the available flying among all our pilots at a reduced expense, we can further reduce or avoid those furloughs,” he added.

The company is also watching to see whether the CARES Act with federal rescue funding for airlines is extended, which could also extend restrictions on furloughs.

Last Friday, Delta said it was continuing talks with the pilots union, the Air Line Pilots Association at Delta, on cost cuts to reduce or avoid the need to furlough pilots.

Delta has been trying for months to negotiate with the union for a reduction of pilots’ guaranteed pay, which could amount to an involuntary pay cut.

But the pilots union said it had instead proposed voluntary measures to save the company money and prevent furloughs.

Chris Riggins, a spokesman for the pilots union, issued a statement saying the union would continue to work with Delta to find ways to mitigate overstaffing.

“While the rest of the industry is working with their employees to explore and develop creative solutions that mitigate massive layoffs, Delta management has instead decided to use the threat of furloughs to force acceptance of involuntary concessions,” Riggins said in a written statement. “It’s not too late for management to complete discussions at the bargaining table and help mitigate the need to furlough.”

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