Nearly 17,000 Southwest employees sign up for buyouts, voluntary leave as furlough threat looms – CNBC

A Southwest Airlines jet leaves Midway Airport on January 25, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

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More airline employees are signing up for buyouts, leaves of absence and early retirements as the threat of furloughs looms this summer.

Close to 17,000 employees or about 28% of Southwest Airlines‘ workforce has signed up for partially-paid extended leaves of absence or outright buyouts, the company’s CEO Gary Kelly told employees Monday. Close to 4,400 put their hands up for buyouts while nearly 12,500 expressed interest in extended time off, Kelly said in a staff memo seen by CNBC.

Airline executives have urged employees to take unpaid or partially paid time off.  Companies are offering a host of buyout and early retirement programs as well as unpaid or partially paid temporary time off that provide health care benefits but reduce carriers’ labor expense. The results of the programs comes as demand for air travel eases during the all-important summer travel season.

“Overall, I’m very pleased with the response to these programs,” Kelly said in the memo, which was reported earlier by the Dallas Morning News. “I’m incredibly grateful to those of you who answered the call. I know there are stories behind every one of those 16,895 decisions — from your incredible history at Southwest Airlines, to stories of what’s ahead in your next phase.”

Southwest, which reports quarterly results before the market opens on Thursday, didn’t immediately comment.

At Delta Air Lines, the deadlines for pilots to apply for early retirement packages closed Sunday and 2,235 of them signed up, according to their union.

“The voluntary early-out program participation exceeded our expectations, which is positive,” said Air Line Pilots Association spokesman and Delta pilot Christopher Riggins.

Delta last month said close to 2,600 pilots would be warned about potential furloughs when the terms of federal aid expire this fall, adding that more than half of the carrier’s more than 14,000 would be eligible. When settling on the number of jobs at risk, Delta had already factored in routine retirements as pilots approach the federally-mandated retirement age of 65.

“This is meaningful progress as we look to mitigate furloughs and our teams are hard at work to determine next steps and evaluate how the pilot early retirement may affect Delta’s overall pilot staffing outlook,” Delta said in a statement.

Delta’s early retirement program provides pilots partial pay for up to three years and extended health insurance coverage.

Delta last week asked pilots to reduce their minimum hours by 15%, a plan that the airline says would avoid involuntary furloughs for a year, CNBC first reported.

Southwest shares were down more than 2.4% in afternoon trading, while Delta was off 2.3%. United and American were each down more than 3%.