United Airlines tells staff it is hiring hundreds of pilots for travel recovery

United Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft lands at San Francisco International Airport.

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United Airlines Thursday, told staff it would soon start hiring hundreds of pilots – a process the airline was forced to stop when the coronavirus pandemic devastated travel demand last year, according to an e- internal mail reviewed by CNBC.

The Chicago-based airline is the first of major U.S. airlines to announce it will resume hiring pilots, the latest sign it is preparing for a recovery. The airline will start by hiring around 300 pilots who had conditional job offers or training planned last year before the airline canceled the hiring.

Over the past year, airlines, including United, have urged thousands of workers to agree to buyouts, early retirement packages and time off as they rush to cut costs during the pandemic. United and its pilots’ union – the Air Line Pilots Association – reached an agreement to avoid time off with its pilots last year, including reduced hours for some junior pilots, although these inferior guarantees are suspended due to federal aid.

Congress included a third round of federal payroll support for airlines that bans job cuts until September 30 as part of the $ 1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package last month. As of March 2020, lawmakers have set aside $ 54 billion in subsidies and loans for airlines to pay workers during the crisis.

U.S. airlines lost $ 35 billion last year, but expect a steady increase in bookings as more of the public are vaccinated and feel more comfortable getting on planes.

“With increasing vaccination rates and the trend in travel demand on the rise, I am delighted to announce that United will resume the driver recruitment process which was interrupted last year,” wrote Bryan Quigley , United’s senior vice president of flight operations, in a staff note Thursday. , which was viewed by CNBC. “We’re going to start with the 300 or so pilots who had a new hiring class date that was canceled, or who had a conditional job offer for 2020.”

Demand for air travel has recently picked up. The Transportation Security Administration screened an average of about 1.2 million people a day last month, up 15% from last year, when the pandemic and stay-at-home orders halted nearly every day. trips.

Volumes last month are still below half of March 2019 levels, with business and international travel still largely stalled, but demand for leisure is starting to climb. United CEO Scott Kirby told an industry conference on Wednesday that domestic demand for leisure had almost fully recovered.

“I am especially happy that we were able to protect our people during this disaster,” Todd Insler, president of the United Chapter of the Airline Pilots Association and United captain said of the pandemic. He said if the company had been granted his leave it would have been much more difficult to capitalize on the rebound in travel.

Like United, other carriers are starting to see a need for additional staff, especially pilots, whose training is expensive and time consuming.

Spirit Airlines last month, said it had resumed hiring pilots and flight attendants, while other budget carriers Allegiant Air and Sun Country Airlines also expect to hire this year.

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