Updated at 9 a.m. ET
United Airlines and American Airlines have sent furlough notices to a total of more than 32,000 employees, saying they can't afford to have them on payroll after Thursday – the expiration date for the federal CARES Act Payroll Support Program.
"To our departing 13,000 family members: thank you for your dedication and we look forward to welcoming you back," United said in a message sent to employees Wednesday night that it also shared with NPR.
American sent a similar message to 19,000 employees, with CEO Doug Parker saying the furloughs could be reversed if Washington manages to reach a new business aid package. He also said there is hope for a CARES Act extension — and he pledged to immediately reverse the furloughs if a deal is reached "over the next few days."
"I spoke late today with the Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin," Parker said in a letter sent to employees on Wednesday. "He informed me that the White House and Speaker Nancy Pelosi are continuing to negotiate on a bipartisan COVID-19 relief package that would include an extension of the PSP and it is possible they could reach an agreement in the coming days."
United sent involuntary furlough notices to 13,432 employees, with roughly half of them from its inflight services division. American did not provide a breakdown of its affected employees.
In response to the furlough plans, the Association of Flight Attendants' international president, Sara Nelson, joined the airlines in urging Congress to extend the payroll relief package, saying tens of thousands of people now face bleak prospects.
"They don't know how they will pay rent, feed their families, or cover the cost of their prescriptions or medical care," Nelson said. "It did not have to be this way."
Flight attendants, Nelson said, "have been on the frontlines of the COVID crisis since the earliest days. We have done our part to keep our economy and our country running through the pandemic."
The U.S. government's pandemic relief effort had provided some $25 billion in loans and grants to airlines, which quickly racked up billions of dollars in losses after the COVID-19 pandemic effectively shut down most of the travel industry in March.
"Congress has been negotiating another stimulus bill to address the economic impact of COVID-19 and there is strong bipartisan support," United said. But it added that despite a broad industry and labor push to extend the CARES Act, "Congress has still not taken action."
Parker urged employees to contact their elected officials to urge an extension.
"I am extremely sorry we have reached this outcome," he said. "It is not what you all deserve."
Not every large U.S. airline is planning to furlough workers. Delta CEO Ed Bastian said earlier this month that the airline "will be able to avoid involuntary furloughs for our flight attendants and ground-based frontline employees in the U.S."
Delta can avoid those furloughs due to a number of money-saving measures, Bastian said. Operations were scaled back, and 40,000 employees voluntarily signed up for short- and long-term unpaid leaves of absence. In addition, he said, 20% of Delta employees opted to take voluntary exit packages, and work hours for ground employees were reduced by 25%.