A United Airlines Boeing 757 taxis to its gate at Denver International Airport on July 19, 2019, which was forecast to be the hub's busiest day ever. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

By David Koenig, The Associated Press

United Airlines will send layoff warnings to 36,000 employees — nearly half its U.S. staff — in the clearest signal yet of how deeply the virus outbreak is hurting the airline industry.

United is the largest carrier at Denver International Airport, which is one of the airline’s hubs. United employs more than 7,000 people, as a result, in the Mile High City.

As many as 2,800 Denver jobs could be affected by the cuts, United said in a letter sent to the state’s employment officials.

The outlook for a recovery in air travel has dimmed in just the past two weeks, as infection rates rise in much of the U.S. and some states imposed new quarantine requirements.

United officials said Wednesday that they still hope to limit the number of layoffs by offering early retirement, and that the 36,000 number is a worst-case scenario. The notices being sent to employees this month are meant to comply with 60-day warning ahead of mass job cuts.

A Boeing 787 Dreamliner, operated by United Airlines, at Denver International Airport. (Provided by Denver International Airport)

The furloughs would include 15,000 flight attendants, 11,000 customer service and gate agents, 5,500 maintenance workers and 2,250 pilots.


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“The United Airlines projected furlough numbers are a gut punch, but they are also the most honest assessment we’ve seen on the state of the industry,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants. “This crisis dwarfs all others in aviation history, and there’s no end in sight.”

If United carries through on the notices, furloughs would take effect on or shortly after Oct. 1. United can’t lay off workers before then as a condition of the $5 billion in federal payroll aid it began receiving this spring.

The flight attendants’ union and other airline labor groups are lobbying Congress to approve another $25 billion in payroll aid to protect jobs through next March. But a senior United executive expressed doubt that Congress would approve the spending in an election year.

“We do not feel like we can count on additional government support to survive,” said the official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity.

United executives said the notices would go to 45% of the airline’s U.S. staff. Another 1,300 management and support staff will be laid off Oct. 1, the company said. Including international employees, United has a work force of about 95,000.

Air travel plunged about 95% from March 1 until mid-April, then began a slow recovery. The number of U.S. air travelers around the July 4 weekend was the highest since mid-March, but was still down about 70% from a year ago.

EARLIER: Coronavirus has left Denver International Airport little more than an airplane parking lot

In recent weeks, the number of new reported cases of COVID-19 has roughly doubled to about 50,000 a day. New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Chicago have announced that people arriving from states with high infection rates will have to quarantine, throwing up a new roadblock to travel.

United’s traffic at its hub in Newark, New Jersey, has slumped more deeply than the rest of its network since those quarantine rules were announced.

In Denver, United has slowly been building back its service. The airline expects to operate about 270 daily flights out of the Mile High City beginning in August.

Droves of passengers make their way through a United Airlines check-in counter at Denver International Airport on July 19, 2019, which was forecast to be the hub’s busiest day ever. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

In June, the airline was operating just 135 flights a day out of Denver. Before the pandemic United was operating about 500 flights a day out of DIA.

“While demand has trended slightly upward from its April low, our July scheduled capacity is expected to be down 75% compared to last year and we expect August scheduled capacity to be down 65% compared to last year,” the company said in a memo to workers. “And now, given the recent resurgence of COVID-19 cases across the country, it’s increasingly likely that travel demand will not return to normal until there is a widely available treatment or vaccine.”

The memo added: “The reality is that United simply cannot continue at our current payroll level past October 1 in an environment where travel demand is so depressed. And involuntary furloughs come as a last resort, after months of company-wide cost-cutting and capital-raising.”

United Airlines planes parked at Denver International Airport during the coronavirus pandemic. (Handout)

Denver also has a flight training center in Denver that more than 12,000 pilots pass through each year.

A spokeswoman for United said it’s unclear how many employees in Denver could be affected by the job cuts. The airline has been planning a massive expansion at DIA, including adding more gates and hundreds of new daily flights.

Executives of other airlines have predicted their companies will be much smaller, with fewer employees, in October. Delta Air Lines recently told employees that it will send layoff notices to more than 2,500 of its 14,000 pilots.

Colorado Sun staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.