United Airlines Will Close Their Overseas Cabin Crew Bases In Hong Kong, Tokyo and Frankfurt From October 1, 2020

United Airlines is one of the few carriers that still has cabin crew bases overseas but these times will come to an end very soon as the company just announced these bases would be closed on October 1, 2020.

All of their Hong Kong, Tokyo and Frankfurt bases will be closed and the positions there eliminated without local replacements and United will staff their flights like most other carriers – from their home bases in the U.S. and with crew layovers at the respective destinations.

The date of October 1st isn’t picked by coincidence as it’s the first day of the expiry of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act under which United received bailout money from the government that came with the condition that no layoffs can take place until the expiration of the act.

South China Morning Post wrote today that in Hong Kong alone 319 jobs will be lost.

United Airlines will close its cabin crew bases in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Frankfurt, eliminating a total of 840 jobs, as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on international air travel.

The Chicago-headquartered carrier told its employees on Friday of the “difficult decision”, with the Hong Kong base hit hardest with 319 jobs lost. The airline has been associated with the city since the 1990s.

With scores of jobs in the aviation sector under threat, airlines are looking overseas to cut back on employment first. …

“In the current and future environment, we simply are not able to sustain an in-flight base at these locations,” United’s senior vice-president of in-flight services John Slater said.

“We recognise that closing any base places hardship on those who live near those locations.”

Affected crew members, however, would be given job opportunities in the United States, depending on eligibility.

The closures will take effect from October 1, the first day of the expiry of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a package of US$50 billion (HK$387.5 billion) in government grants and loan guarantees for US carriers. Airlines were not permitted to lay off staff before the end of September as part of the payroll aid package.

Some 300 United Airlines flight attendant roles will be lost in Tokyo and 220 in Frankfurt, out of a total of 24,000 employed globally. …

In the past, overseas cabin crew bases tended to be a popular means to keep staff costs under control, but over time, this has become increasingly expensive for airlines to maintain.

British Airways in 2018 closed its Hong Kong cabin crew base with the loss of 85 jobs. In 2015, Virgin Atlantic axed two-thirds of its flight attendants in the city, affecting senior staff but sparing junior crew members. …

Cathay Pacific closed all of its North American flight attendant bases in five cities over the past 14 months with the loss of 566 employees, more recently announcing the closure of its US bases in April.

Some of the flight attendants who worked for United in Hong Kong, Frankfurt or Tokyo are either U.S. citizens themselves or have permanent residence status/eligibility because they’re married to U.S. citizens (often other United employees, especially pilots).

I’m not so sure if these people would be willing to settle over to the U.S. for the sake of a flight attendant position, even though given the current developments some might to take it as an exit strategy from Hong Kong. Those who aren’t eligible to work or settle in the U.S. however are out of luck.

Indeed as the article notes most airlines have stopped basing crew outside their home country as it became increasingly more costly and complicated to maintain overseas crews who are subject to different employment laws, are represented by their own unions and are overall a real headache to manage.

Conclusion

I don’t blame United for this step. It would be extremely difficult to explain why they keep expensive overseas bases going while at the same time slashing jobs at home. Too bad though, I always felt that with United their overseas crews were the best. Quite the contrary to Cathay Pacific, their U.S. based crew has always been horrible.

For these employees stationed in FRA/HKG/TYO it will be difficult however to find alternative employment especially since many (if not most) of them are already older. It will depend on their family, citizenship and financial situation if they decide to take United up on their offer and move to the U.S. for continuation of their employment with the carrier.

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