MIAMI — In case you have not heard, United Airlines announced that they are calling back all of their nearly 600 pilots on furlough. While this is certainly positive news for both the pilots and the airline industry, United is not calling back the furloughed pilots because of a “growth spree” as the The Wall Street Journal pointed out. United says they are making the move “to address the airline’s future staffing needs.”
In 2007, the U.S. increased the mandatory pilot retirement age from 60 to 65. Instead of retiring at 60, many pilots understandably decided to fly until they turned 65. Meanwhile oil prices spiked in 2008, causing United to ground their Boeing 737 fleet.
This duo of unforeseen events forced United to furlough 1,437 pilots between 2008 and 2009. Now a little more than five years later, many of the pilots who kept flying until they turned 65 are now retiring, and there is a demand to replace them. Also, changes to pilot rest rules means that United will need more pilots.
Since sending the more than 1,400 pilots on furlough, United recalled 342 furloughed pilots a few years ago. Due to the United/Continental merger in 2010, approximately 600 furloughed United pilots were called back to fly for Continental Airlines within the last year. The roughly 600 pilots that are returning now were the last to be furloughed.
United is not the only airline to recall pilots on furlough. Last November, American Airlines began calling back furloughed pilots, and forty pilots began training in Forth Worth, Texas in January. Delta Air Lines plans to add more pilots, and they are expecting to add 50 pilots a month between November and early 2014. Then, they plan to take 20 pilots a month until September 2014.
United Airlines currently employs more than 12,000 pilots. However, there is a United and a Continental branch of the Air Line Pilots Association at the “new United.” Both the pre-merger United and Continental pilots currently fly under two different union contracts. Last December, pilots from both branches approved a joint union contract, and earlier this week, pilots from both groups have approved an integrated seniority list.
Training for the recently furloughed pilots that decide to return to the cockpit will begin next month. Capt. Jay Heppner, chairman of the leadership council of the United branch of the Air Line Pilots Association, said, “We welcome our brother and sister pilots back with open arms,” and he continued by mentioning that “we have worked toward this day for more than five years.”