Throughout its 50-plus-year history, Southwest Airlines (LUV -0.11%), founded in 1967, has never laid off an employee -- until, perhaps, today.

In a communication to employees on Monday, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly warned employees that because of the recession, in general, and the plunge in air travel traffic in the age of coronavirus, in particular, the company is likely to conduct its first-ever round of involuntary layoffs. "The recent rise in Covid cases and increases in regional restrictions on businesses and states requiring quarantine aren't positive developments for our business," deadpanned the CEO. Industrywide, air travel traffic is down about 73% from pre-corona levels. And consequently, while "furloughs and layoffs remain our very last resort, we can't rule them out as a possibility in this really bad environment," Kelly said. 

Southwest airplane in flight.

Image source: Getty Images.

Hoping for the best but advising his employees to prepare for the worst, Kelly urged workers to apply for "voluntary separation" or "extended time off" in order to help Southwest cut its costs and avoid the need to resort to involuntary layoffs, Bloomberg reported today. Failing that, the company will move next to consider cutting pay and benefits.  

And failing that, it seems only one thing could save Southwest from ruining a record of more than a half-century of keeping workers on the payroll through thick and thin: "We need a significant recovery by the end of this year ... roughly triple the number of passengers from where we are today," opined the CEO.

Since that seems unlikely to happen, the only logical conclusion is that after 53 years, layoffs are finally coming to Southwest.