July 8 (UPI) -- United Airlines warned its employees Wednesday that it could lay off up to 36,000 workers in October if the travel industry doesn't pick up after a lull caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The company made the announcement in a memo sent to employees.
"The reality is that United simply cannot continue at our current payroll level past October 1 in an environment where travel demand is so depressed," the letter said. "And involuntary furloughs come as a last resort, after months of company-wide cost-cutting and capital-raising."
United said it plans to have voluntary furloughs first before moving to cutting employees. Some employees may be rehired depending on future air travel demand.
The potential layoffs include flight attendants, pilots, airport customer service and gate agents.
"The United Airlines projected furlough numbers are a gut punch, but they are also the most honest assessment we've seen on the state of the industry," said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants.
"COVID-19 is an unprecedented threat to aviation workers and the entire U.S. aviation industry. This crisis dwarfs all others in aviation history and there's no end in sight. Demand was just barely climbing back to 20 percent of last year and even those minimal gains evaporated over the last week due to surging COVID-19 cases across the country."
The announcement comes one week after the airline said it planned to add nearly 25,000 flights in August after it saw signs of increased travel as states began to reopen their economies. Despite the uptick, United would be operating at about 40 percent of the schedule it flew in August 2019.
United is one of several U.S. airlines that have signed letters of intent to receive billions in loans allocated for passenger airlines in the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act passed by Congress.
It's not yet known when United, or any U.S. carrier, will be allowed to resume flights to the European Union. The 27-member bloc reopened external borders on Wednesday to travelers from more than a dozen nations. The United States is still on the travel blacklist because it hasn't met specific COVID-19 mitigation criteria.