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United Airlines To Shutter Three International Crew Bases

Yesterday, in an internal memo shared with employees, United Airlines announced that it would cut three of its international cabin crew bases. The airline is planning to make the cuts from October when the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) act ends. United has offered these staff members a lifeline, but is a promise it can follow through with?

United in flight
United Airlines will close three of its four international crew bases. Photo: Getty Images

United to drop staff from October

For United Airlines, staff unemployment has looked to be on the cards for a while. Having invested in several plans to conserve cash and tighten its operation, it was only a matter of time before the airline looked to reduce its headcount.

In an internal memo, seen by Reuters, United Airlines announced on Friday (June 5th) that it would be closing three of its foreign flight attendant bases. With just four of them anyway, this figure represents a shut down of 75%. The decision leaves 840 United crew without jobs come October 1st.

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UA Cabin crew member helps passenger
840 staff will be cut, mainly from Hong Kong. Photo: United Airlines

The region hardest hit by the news was Hong Kong. United Airlines employs 319 workers there. The Chicago-based carrier will also drop its base at Tokyo Narita, Japan. 300 employees at this base will lose their jobs. The final crew base to get the chop is the one in Frankfurt, Germany. 220 crew will finish their employment from the start of October.

What are the options for staff?

Indeed, the decision will not have been one that was taken lightly. In a statement, the Vice President for In-Flight Services at United, John Slater, told the South China Morning Post,

“In the current and future environment, we simply are not able to sustain an in-flight base at these locations. We recognize that closing any base places hardship on those who live near those locations.”

However, despite the callousness of any redundancy, United is not leaving its staff without recourse. It has provided a vital lifeline which could allow select staff members to continue their employment with United. The condition: that they are eligible to work in the United States. Providing current employees want to and can, United Airlines has said that it will allow them to transfer to US bases from October.

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UA cabin crew smiling
United staff can transfer to the US from October, but how many will? Photo: United Airlines

Despite that, it is not clear how many employees will take United up on its offer. It’s a significant life decision to move across the world with just three months’ notice.

How has the coronavirus affected United Airlines?

Of course, if it could have been avoided, United would unlikely have shut down its Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Frankfurt bases. It’s maintaining one base in London Heathrow for the moment.

Parked United Aircraft
United was aware that it would need to make some sacrifices. Photo: Getty Images

United has spoken in the past rather dismally and, perhaps truthfully, about the impact of the coronavirus on the industry and its operations. On a conference call attended by Simple Flying at the end of last month, United CEO Scott Kirby shared his uncertainty on the pandemic. He said that its unpredictability would lead to United taking “tough decisions and big sacrifices.”

Over the past few weeks, United has gently been unveiling its post-outbreak strategy. Scott Kirby spoke of a strategy shift with a focus less on growth and more on repaying debt. In addition, the airline announced a Voluntary Separation Program, which was shared at the end of May. The program is open to any employees seeking to leave the company before potential redundancy.

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