The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted some industries more than others. The airline industry, for example, has seen a sharp decline in business as a result of social distancing measures and travel restrictions. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates that global airline passenger traffic will not return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024, a year later than previously projected. To adapt to this decreased demand for air travel, many airlines have made the difficult decision to restructure and reduce the size of their workforces. 

According to IATA, airlines worldwide have cut about 35% of their global combined workforces since the beginning of the pandemic. IATA also estimates that without government assistance, 1.3 million airline jobs are at risk, which could have a domino effect that puts 3.5 million jobs across the aviation sector in jeopardy, along with 46 million additional jobs in the broader global economy that are supported by aviation.

While furloughs or layoffs are sometimes unavoidable, especially given the economic impact of the pandemic, many airlines are going above and beyond to support employees during this challenging time. Some airlines are thinking outside the box for alternatives to layoffs, while others are identifying ways to help departing employees make successful career transitions. Here are a few ways airlines are managing pandemic-related workforce shifts.

related content: why your organization needs to be prepared for a layoff.

leaves of absence

To cut costs and preserve jobs, several major airlines have offered employees temporary leaves of absence. At United Airlines and American Airlines, two of the top three US carriers, a total of 20,000 employees have taken temporary unpaid leave, which allows employees to continue receiving medical and other health benefits. During the initial pandemic outbreak earlier this year, Cathay Pacific was forced to cut 90% of its flights to mainland China and encouraged its 27,000 employees to take unpaid leave for three weeks.

While employers across industries have offered sabbaticals in the past, given the current economic climate, more are offering employees unpaid leave from the company. Positioning this time off as a sabbatical reduces some of the stigma associated with time away from work, helps employers reduce immediate costs and gives employees the opportunity to return once business picks up.

voluntary early retirement

Another step airlines are taking to avoid or decrease layoffs and furloughs is offering voluntary early retirement. For example, Delta Air Lines announced plans to invest more than $3 billion to cover the costs of early retirement among employees. Others including American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Thai Airways have offered similar plans to their staff.


Airlines are identifying creative solutions to move current employees to other roles or assignments, either internally or with partner companies, commonly known as redeployment. With redeployment, employees can move from low-demand work to busier, high-demand areas of the organization, either on a temporary or permanent basis, based on business need. For example, given reduced flights, ticket agents or flight attendants might be redeployed to customer service roles to respond to an influx of customer inquiries about flight changes or cancellations.

In some cases, airlines are partnering with outside organizations to redeploy their employees. Qantas Airways joined with grocery chain Woolworths to help its employees affected by workforce reductions find new roles as groceries stores saw a spike in business. American Airlines worked with Deloitte to help match employees’ transferrable skills with roles at national retailers such as Albertsons Companies, Amazon, CVS Health, Home Depot and Instacart. Through the American Airlines program, employees who accept positions with these partner companies can either reduce their working hours with American Airlines or take temporary leaves of absence, allowing these individuals to return to their roles when demand for air travel picks up.

In the long term, redeploying employees can help airlines support a more agile workforce, preserve jobs, maintain cultural knowledge by retaining employees and save time and cost that might otherwise be spent hiring and onboarding new employees as the economy recovers. Redeployment can also help employees find new career paths that might better align with their skills and passions, ultimately boosting engagement.

related content: how rapid redeployment can help companies avoid layoffs and reduce costs.


Some airlines are helping impacted employees find new roles quickly by offering outplacement solutions. Top employers understand that providing outplacement, either on their own or through an outplacement solutions partner, is a worthwhile investment. Outplacement can help reduce unemployment tax charges and other costs related to reductions in force. It also showcases a commitment to embracing corporate values and doing right by employees, which can have a long-lasting, positive effect on an organization’s overall and employer brand. 

Outplacement solutions give exiting employees a major leg up in finding new roles. Many airline employees will need to consider roles in other industries, at least until air travel bounces back, and any extra support they can receive to make a successful career transition is critically important.

Through outplacement services, individuals impacted by layoffs can receive an updated, targeted and optimized resume and social profile, personalized career coaching and access to highly targeted job leads. A refreshed resume and effective career coaching can help airline employees understand and showcase their transferrable skills and stand out to employers in other industries. For example, an airline customer service representative can highlight transferrable skills such as effective communication, problem solving and multitasking to land a customer service or support role in another industry.

The right outplacement services partner will also offer impacted employees online tools and resources to match their specific needs and accelerate the job search. These tools might include a virtual dashboard to track their individual journey, articles, assessments, videos, webinars, networking scripts and tip sheets.

Airlines that do right by their employees during a workforce reduction can maintain a positive relationship with both exiting and remaining employees, which is not only critical for overall brand reputation but can also boost morale and productivity across the organization.

related content: 5 ways to keep employees productive before, during and after a layoff.

communicating hiring changes to candidates

When business needs shift, not only should these changes be communicated to current employees, but it’s also important to update candidates. The current economic climate makes the job search highly competitive and challenging for job seekers. Empathetic employers understand the stress job seekers are facing and close the communications loop with all candidates – even if the hiring process is paused or they don’t receive a job offer.

During a session at the HR Technology Conference, a spokesperson from Delta Air Lines emphasized the importance of airlines taking care of candidates just as they would employees, as these candidates are already ‘in flight’ with the hiring process. Two of Delta’s core values are transparency and fostering relationships and the company holds true to these core values when interacting with candidates.

Given changing hiring needs as a result of the pandemic, Delta halted its standard and automated candidate messages and created custom communications that address the needs at this time. They made it clear that they would reach back out to candidates once travel bounces back. Taking an approach such as this helps reduce the stress many candidates face when they eagerly wait for updates on a job opportunity only to never hear back. Supporting a positive candidate experience can help airlines reengage with these individuals when the time is right and reflects well on employer brand.

leaning into core values

Best-in-class airlines are not only known for their customer service, but also for supporting a strong company culture. These airlines strive to create an engaging employee experience from arrival to departure – including helping exiting staff land smoothly on their feet. When it comes to workforce changes – including restructuring and reductions in staff – top airlines continue to live by their core values to assist both remaining and departing employees.

In the longer term, as the economy recovers, airline travel picks back up and hiring becomes a renewed focus, companies that have shown they care for their workforce will be employers of choice and will be more likely to attract qualified talent to drive continued success.

beth kempton.

senior public relations and content manager

11 November 2020

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