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Lower Employment Figures Spur Concern for Airline Industry

April 19, 2021 by Reece Nations
United Airlines planes are parked at Orlando International Airport. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

WASHINGTON — As the industry continues to rally back from the lifting of pandemic travel restrictions, some passenger airline companies are still struggling to retain full-time employees.

February employment figures for airlines were down nearly 1% from January, according to a monthly report by the Department of Transportation. Scheduled passenger airlines accounted for 60% of the industry’s total employment in February 2021, which is down from the 63% mark recorded in March 2020. 

Compared to February 2020, the sector employed roughly 66,000 fewer people in February 2021, according to the report. United Airlines alone accounted for 6,158 fewer full-time equivalent positions since the January report, although other passenger airlines reported an increase in full-time equivalents from January to February.

While the 22 major network passenger airlines accounted for 394,843 full-time positions in February, that figure is still down 14.3% from last year. American, Delta Air, United and Alaska Airlines’ employment figures were a combined 18.5% lower than last year. 

Prior to the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic around March 2020, the sector boasted an employment figure of around 462,000. Although the Transportation Department report underscores a troubling trend for the industry, regional and low-cost airlines have started fairing slightly better. 

Regional airlines saw an uptick in their employment figures from January, climbing by just under 1%. Still, these companies are doing better than they did in February 2017 when employment figures were 13% lower than they were in February of this year. 

Employment for low-cost airlines was down 0.2% from January of this year, although they are up 4.5% from February 2017. However, both the regional and low-cost sectors of the industry are worse off than they were prior to the COVID-19 pandemic when they employed 6.8% and 7.7% more full-time equivalents, respectively.

Because federal regulations mandate airlines to report the employment data of workers who received pay for any period of time each month, the Transportation Department’s statistical bureau has scheduled March’s passenger airline employment data to be released in May. It is unclear at this time if the employment data signifies another step in the nation’s path to normalcy or an omen for continued economic hardship. 

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