United postpones new pilot class amid coronavirus outbreak

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A United Airlines Boeing 737 passenger jet takes off at San Antonio International Airport in Texas.

Robert Alexander

United Airlines is postponing start dates for some new pilots this month, the carrier’s pilots’ labor union confirmed Sunday.

A class of pilots that was supposed to start training this week has been postponed, people familiar with the matter had said. The change comes as the new coronavirus, or COVID-19, spreads, prompting United and its competitors to scale back some international routes.

Training can take several months before pilots start flying for the airline regularly and while classes vary in size, they could total about two-dozen pilots, one of the people said, adding that it was unusual to call off training start dates on such short notice. The people spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the training plans. 

United is also offering some pilots who fly the widebody aircraft used on trans-Pacific routes a month off at reduced pay after the airline cut some of its Asia flights, according to a memo sent Friday by the United pilots’ union.  United has “worked with our union partners to offer pilots associated with those changes the opportunity to voluntarily adjust their near-term schedules, as we do whenever business needs allow,” a spokeswoman said. “Moving forward, we will continue to evaluate the impact of COVID-19 and work closely with our labor partners to help manage our business to minimize the operational and financial disruption of the outbreak.”

Airlines have ramped up their pilot hiring in recent years as they faced increasing demand and more pilots near the federally mandated retirement age of 65. Earlier this month, United announced the purchase of a flight-training academy, which is called the United Aviate Academy, to train its future pilots. 

“We are on track to open the United Aviate Academy later this year and our plan to hire more than 10,000 pilots by 2029 remains unchanged,” the United spokeswoman said.

Airlines around the world have been reassessing their routes as the new coronavirus spreads beyond China, where most of the more than 87,000 cases have been reported. A series of new travel advisories and restrictions and the spread of the virus itself to other countries, including South Korea and Italy, has driven down demand to those destinations.

On Sunday, Delta Air Lines said it will suspend this week its service between New York and Milan until early May. The move came hours after American Airlines said it would suspend its flights from New York and Miami to Milan until April 25.  “American continues to review the airline’s flight schedule to ensure that customers’ needs are accommodated and will make additional refinements as necessary,” the airline said in a statement.

United on Friday reduced its service throughout Asia. Delta Air Lines took a similar step, cutting its weekly flights to South Korea to 15 a week from 28. U.S. airlines have all suspended their flights to Hong Kong and mainland China.

United on Friday announced it would postpone its investor day, which was scheduled for next Thursday because it “does not believe it is practical to expect that it can have a productive conversation focused on its long-term strategy next week.”

U.S. airline stocks tumbled more sharply than the broader market’s rout as investors fretted about a broad drop in travel demand.

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