With business in a tailspin, airlines tell staff to take off

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With business in a tailspin, airlines tell staff to take off

Domestic airlines are reducing the number of staff at an unprecedented rate as only 10 to 20 percent of their flights are operating.

Korean Air, the country’s largest carrier, recently granted unpaid leave to intern flight attendants, who joined the company in the past two years. Earlier March, the airline offered unpaid leave to cabin crew with more than two years of experience.

“This is the first time we asked for applications for unpaid leave from intern flight attendants,” said a Korean Air spokesman. It accepted applications from mid-March through Sunday.

Last week, the company said all 79 of its senior executives would take pay cuts of 30 to 50 percent starting from April until business gets back to normal. Korean Air isn’t the first domestic airline to announce such a measure, but it is the country’s largest, which shows the depth of the crisis.

Korean Air President Woo Kee-hong hinted at cost cutting in a message sent to staff in early March, saying the recent difficulties “were much grimmer than the Asian financial crisis in 1997 when only 18 percent of flight operations were cut.”

As of Tuesday, Korean Air and Asiana Airlines were operating 10 to 20 percent of their routes compared to before the coronavirus outbreak. Korean Air flights, for example, are still operating around 15 destinations including New York City, Paris, London, Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, Narita in Japan and Shenyang in China.

Korea’s second-largest carrier, Asiana Airlines, announced last week that it would operate with 50 percent of its workforce in the month of April. All staffers were obliged to go on unpaid leave for 15 days this month, the company said. The measure was “necessary as the number of reduced flights has prompted more than 70 percent of the working staff to become idle manpower,” it said.

Low-cost carrier (LCC) Eastar Jet sent a notice to 80 or so new pilots on Monday, saying their contracts will be terminated starting Wednesday. New pilots at Eastar Jet go through a probation period of two years and are normally offered permanent positions afterward.

In late March, Eastar Jet announced a halt to all of its flights, both domestic and international, for the following month. Its entire staff is going on unpaid leave in April. It failed to pay its staff on March’s payday, which falls on the 25th.

Other LCCs like Air Seoul, Air Busan and Jeju Air are putting more than half of their staff on unpaid leave. The coronavirus crisis was just the latest blow for low-cost carriers, who saw demand plummet last year when the Korean public started avoiding flights to Japan as a means to boycott Japanese goods; they also avoided flights to Hong Kong because of pro-democracy protests.

The government has announced support measures twice to help LCCs stay afloat, but the companies issued a statement saying they were not enough. The Korea Civil Aviation Association is preparing a letter asking for more support based on the requirements of local carriers, which is to be delivered this week.

BY SONG KYOUNG-SON [song.kyoungson@joongang.co.kr]
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