Airlines, facing a crisis, make up a big part of the Charlotte region’s economic heft

Friday, March 20, 2020
A worker pushes an American Airlines jet back from the gate. Photo: American Airlines

Charlotte is home to the world’s sixth-busiest airport by takeoffs and landings, and Charlotte Douglas International is often cited as the region’s most important economic asset.

That’s why the airline industry’s sudden existential crisis could be especially consequential for the region. In a joint leader to government leaders this week, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker and labor union leaders said the industry is facing “an extraordinary erosion in demand for air travel.”

Because of the coronavirus crisis, American Airlines and other carriers are struggling with the twin blow of a massive dropoff in customer demand and radically tightened restrictions on where they can fly.

[Read more: Coronavirus impacts food service workers, who play a major role in our regional economy]

At Charlotte’s airport, American accounts for about 90 percent of daily flights. Like other airlines, American has slashed its April schedule: a 75 percent reduction in international flights  and a 30 percent reduction in domestic flights, with more to follow in May. 

In real numbers, that means 55,000 fewer flights and 450 planes parked. From Charlotte, American has suspended its European routes through at least early May or June, depending on the city. The airline is also offering unpaid leave to some employees.

Aviation accounts for 13,636 direct jobs in the Charlotte region (think pilots, flight attendants, gate agents, aircraft mechanics and others). They’re almost all located in Mecklenburg County, due to the airport, but workers live throughout a wider geographical area. 

Though the jobs themselves are extermely concentrated in Mecklenburg County, aviation industry workers reside throughout the region. Map: Katie Zager. 

The jobs have a high median wage: $95,623. 

Supporting workers such as TSA agents, cargo or freight agents and food service workers in the airport account for another 8,723 jobs in the region. Those workers are already seeing impacts as well: More than 600 have been laid off or put on unpaid leave, the Charlotte Observer reported this week. 

[Read more: Retail workers, many hit by store closures, make up a big part of our workforce]

The aviation industry is seeking major government relief: a $50 billion bailout package they say is vital to get them through the collapse. 

“U.S. carriers are in need of immediate assistance as the current economic environment is simply not sustainable. This is compounded by the fact that the crisis does not appear to have an end in sight,” wrote Airlines for America, the U.S. industry’s lobbying group, in an open letter this week.