The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA wanted the crew relocated to London to ensure they retained their jobs. Some 151 of the 840 originally at-risk staff would retain their jobs as they were eligible to work in the US, but must relocate.
Airlines are planning mass job cuts to avoid running out of money as the coronavirus becomes the worst crisis to hit the aviation sector in its history.
Carriers, including Cathay Pacific Airways, have benefited from government bailouts to prevent their collapse, but are planning sweeping restructures which are likely to include mass lay-offs.
United announced the closure of overseas cabin crew bases, which also affected Tokyo Narita and Frankfurt, in June. A ruling on the fate of the staff, which is binding, is expected in mid-September.
“When the crews were hired, during the criteria for hiring and a pre-hire contract, it did not specify a criteria for flight attendants was to hold a US passport,” said Kimberly Johnson, the union’s chief representative in Hong Kong.
Among the non-locals in Hong Kong are US citizens, mainland Chinese, Taiwanese, Thai, Canadian, Australian, French, Dutch, British, Filipino, Indian, Japanese, Malaysian and Nepalese nationals who have worked for United for at least 25 years, some for 30, and hold permanent residency in the city.
Johnson wanted United to offer two options to save the affected staff – transfer all remaining crew to London, or reconsider keeping Narita open and absorbing all 689 staff there.
“Despite weeks of discussions with union leadership about alternative options related to the closure … we are disappointed that we were unable to reach an agreement on solutions that both parties found acceptable,” the airline said in response.
The union said the earlier talks with United fell apart quickly. United was said to have offered part-time work in London.
This was rejected given the excessive commute for the Hong Kong members and creating “two sets” of flight attendants when all “were equal” in the union’s eyes.
United said despite its drastic cost-cutting and cash raising efforts “we continue to need to make tough decisions to survive this crisis because of the historic drop in air travel demand”.
A third of its staff – or 36,000 employees – in the US have been warned their jobs were at risk.
Since the crisis ensued, United raised US$16.1 billion, including a substantial sum of federal government help covering the cost of wages up to the end of September – which prohibited cutting or furloughing staff.
The airline has lost US$3.3 billion in the first six months of the year, and is expected to slow its US$40 million a day cash burn to US$25 million in the coming months.
The global airline industry expects air travel to recover to pre-Covid levels by 2024, a year later than anticipated. However, it leaves many airlines unable to afford to keep large numbers of staff idle until then.
“We want United to honour our contract and find [full-time] positions for these 689 flight attendants,” Johnson said. “And that solution would be to allow these flight attendants to transfer into the London base or allow these to participate in the voluntary furlough.”
She pointed out that all past overseas base closures – Paris, Santiago, Taipei – saw the crews absorbed into other international bases, “whether they had positions there or not”. United said it did not anticipate any vacancies in London.
United’s overseas base closure mirrors that of Cathay Pacific which shut its North American flight attendant bases – in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Vancouver – earlier this year. Including an earlier closure last year in Toronto, some 566 jobs were lost.
United’s Hong Kong base opened in 1995. From Hong Kong, the airline historically flew to Los Angeles, Delhi, Bangkok, Singapore and Narita. Before the pandemic, the airline flew to Chicago, New York, Newark, San Francisco and Guam.
“Hong Kong has always been a stable, viable base,” Johnson said. “No one thought the Hong Kong base would close with so many departures from here.”
Voluntary furlough, which could give crews eight or 13 months of leave, could also help give the affected staff enough time to get the correct documentation to work in the US, Johnson argued.
She said a lot of her members were feeling betrayed, unappreciated and mistreated.
“A lot of these flight attendants are not ready to retire,” she said.
She said among those affected were married couples who would both lose their jobs, and at least one case involving a family with children, where one spouse was eligible to work in the US but the other was not.
One Hong Kong-based flight attendant, who was unable to speak publicly fearing a company reprimand, said: “The core and value of United is the employees. We flight attendants represent the brand and the product. We are what makes the airline. United have diminished the value of their asset, the employees.”
The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.