United Airlines tells staff it's hiring hundreds of pilots next month as carrier plans for a travel recovery

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A United Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft lands at San Francisco International Airport.
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

United Airlines on Thursday told staff it will soon begin hiring hundreds of pilots — a process the airline was forced to halt when the coronavirus pandemic devastated travel demand last year, according to an internal email reviewed by CNBC.

The Chicago-based airline is the first of the large U.S. carriers to announce it will resume pilot hiring, the latest sign it’s preparing for a recovery. The airline will start with hiring about 300 pilots who had conditional job offers or training scheduled last year before the airline called off hiring.

For the past year, airlines, including United, have urged thousands of workers to take buyouts, early retirement packages and leaves of absence as they raced to cut costs during the pandemic. United and its pilots’ union — the Air Line Pilots Association — reached an agreement to avoid furloughs with its pilots last year, including reduced hours for some junior pilots, though those lower guarantees are suspended because of federal aid.

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

U.S. airlines together lost $35 billion last year but expect a steady rise in bookings as more of the public is vaccinated and feels more comfortable getting on planes.

“With vaccination rates increasing and travel demand trending upwards, I’m excited to share that United will resume the pilot hiring process that was halted last year,” Bryan Quigley, United’s senior vice president of flight operations, wrote in a staff note on Thursday, which was viewed by CNBC. “We’ll start with the approximately 300 pilots who either had a new hire class date that was canceled, or who had a 2020 conditional job offer.”

Air travel demand has recently perked up. The Transportation Security Administration screened an average of about 1.2 million people per day last month, up 15% from a year ago when the pandemic and stay-at-home orders halted almost all travel.

Last month’s volumes are still less than half of March 2019 levels with business and international travel still mostly stalled, but leisure demand is starting to climb. United CEO Scott Kirby on Wednesday told an industry conference that domestic leisure demand has almost completely recovered.

“I’m especially pleased that we were able to project our people during this disaster,” said Todd Insler, chairman of the United chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association and a captain at United about the pandemic. He said if the company furloughed it would have been much harder to capitalize on the travel rebound.

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

Spirit Airlines last month said it 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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