United Airlines has warned 36,000 employees – nearly half its US staff – they could be furloughed in October.
The outlook for a recovery in the airline industry has dimmed in the past two weeks, as infection rates rise in much of the US and some states impose new quarantine requirements on travellers.
A number of airlines have said they must shrink to match the falling demand, with American Airlines executives saying they have 20,000 more employees than the airline will need this autumn.
United told employees on Wednesday that not everyone who gets a layoff notice will be furloughed.
The company said job losses could be reduced if enough employees accept buyouts or early retirement by a deadline next week.
United said it has budgeted 300 million dollars (£240 million) in the second quarter to cover voluntary departures and was unable to estimate the cost of workforce reductions for the rest of the year.
If every US airline matched United’s worst-case scenario of furloughs, it could be extrapolated to about 240,000 lost jobs nationwide, given United’s share of the domestic market.
The notices that United sent out are meant to comply with a law requiring employers warn workers at least 60 days before mass job cuts.
The furloughs could include up to 15,000 flight attendants, 11,000 customer service and gate agents, 5,500 maintenance workers and 2,250 pilots.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said: “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.
“This crisis dwarfs all others in aviation history, and there’s no end in sight.”
United executives said any furloughs will take effect on or shortly after October 1.
The company cannot lay off workers any sooner following a condition of the five billion dollars (£4 billion) it got in federal aid to help airlines cover payroll costs for six months.