At least 1,400 airline workers based at Philadelphia International Airport were furloughed Thursday, as federal stimulus money meant to keep the industry afloat ran out and Congress failed to pass an extension.
The vast majority were let go by American Airlines, which is PHL’s busiest carrier by far. American furloughed 273 pilots and 740 flight attendants based in Philadelphia, along with 337 in fleet services and mechanics, according to their respective unions.
“I feel frustrated. It’s kind of like when somebody dies, at the beginning, the first few moments you feel like, ‘No this isn’t happening,’” said Philadelphia-based flight attendant Yussef Ortolaza, 29, who has flown with American since 2013.
United Airlines furloughed 75 workers in fleet services or customer service at PHL. The company would not confirm cuts to other departments, and union officials did not respond to requests for comment. The small regional carrier PSA Airlines furloughed 14 people. Amid uncertainty about continued federal relief, another small carrier, Republic Airlines, indicated in a mandated notice in July it planned to lay off 49 people. Representatives from that airline did not respond to emails confirming the actions.
Southwest, Delta and Frontier did not furlough any workers in Philadelphia.
Nationally, the prospect of additional furloughs had loomed over the industry for months. The CARES Act had provided $25 billion in payroll support to airline companies in March in exchange for keeping more of their workforce intact through Sept. 30.
All day Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin attempted to hammer out a deal for a new relief package. As of Thursday afternoon, they had not reached an agreement, and House Democrats had begun pushing through a $2.2 trillion relief bill that was unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled Senate.
As the mass furloughs began, airline executives and unions continued to lobby for a deal.
“We’re hanging around trying to hit the right lawmakers to see if we can get something to move,” said Gregg Overman, spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association.
Late Wednesday, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker issued a statement to his staff.
“I am extremely sorry we have reached this outcome. It is not what you all deserve,” Parker wrote, explaining that the company would move forward with 19,000 planned furloughs. If a federal relief bill is passed in the coming days, Parker left open the possibility that workers could be recalled.
Ortolaza, the American flight attendant, has begun thinking through other job options. A polyglot, his ability to speak Arabic, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Portuguese, English and some Dutch allowed him to work international flights and feel he was building stability in the industry.
Through the pandemic, he often took shifts others did not want.
“In January, I never thought that it would be like this. Especially when you see people in our career who have been flying for close to 50 years, that gives you that security, like I could have this career for the rest of my life,” said Ortolaza, of South Philadelphia. His union contract includes the right of recall, meaning he could be offered his job again if it returns. For now, he’s worried how he and his spouse will pay their bills.
Joe Washburn, 57, has worked for United Airlines for more than three decades as a ground services worker, but on Thursday morning his rate was cut, and his hours were slashed in half.
“I’m stressed,” said Washburn, who lives with his wife and daughter in South Jersey. “I find myself impatient with my family.”
Washburn is holding out hope that Congress will reach consensus quickly and he’ll be called back to full-time work. But he’s worried about his finances: His wife, a real estate agent where they live in South Jersey, wasn’t able to work for several months due to coronavirus restrictions this spring, and the family has credit card debt.
By Thursday afternoon, Washburn was on the hunt for a second job.
“I’m thinking Uber, DoorDash,” Washburn said. “Things I never thought I would ever consider.”
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‘You can’t just go and sit behind a desk’
The furloughs likely won’t have much of an effect on the accessibility of air travel to and from Philadelphia.
Demand for air travel fell to a trickle when the pandemic hit last spring and hasn’t recovered since: Passenger volume at PHL is down 62% year-over-year as of the end of August, according to the airport. The interdependent industries of hospitality, air travel, events and restaurants have been some of the hardest hit during the pandemic. Travel and tourism-based companies in the city laid off 70,300 people between March and July.
American had already cut its flight schedule to half of its 2019 levels — an arrangement it plans to continue through the end of the year.
Visit Philadelphia, a group focused on drawing domestic tourists to the metro area, has largely shifted its marketing away from far-flung markets that require a flight to get here.
“Those who are travelling are primarily driving right now,” said Jeff Guaracino, president and CEO of Visit Philadelphia. ”People are driving three, five, 10 hours to make that weekend trip or getaway.”
Judylynn Dyitt is skeptical that the airline industry will meaningfully recover anytime soon.
The 61-year-old, who works as a customer service supervisor for American Airlines, had her hours slashed from 40 a week to 12 on Thursday.
“What makes airlines is their business travel … their transatlantic travel,” she said. “None of that is there.”
Now, Dyitt is gearing up to look for a second job. If she takes one — or finds a new full-time job altogether — it will be with deep reluctance. Nothing, she said, compares to the hustle and thrill of working in air travel.
“Once you are in the industry, it’s like you have been bitten,” Dyitt said. “You can’t just go and sit behind a desk.”
WHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.