Social media has been filled with emotional farewells from flight attendants, pilots and others in the airline industry, which has been decimated since the onset of the coronavirus.
Thousands have lost their job in recent days, and without relief, more could join them. According to the Association of Flight Attendants, more than 100,000 airline workers were out of a job as of October 1. Airlines were no longer obligated as of last week to keep workers employed under the Payroll Support Program, passed by Congress during the spring.
With stimulus talks stalled on Capitol Hill, unions representing the airline industry have been pushing Congress to take immediate action. And given the mixed messages coming from the White House, it is unclear if any assistance is coming their way.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump tweeted that he would no longer negotiate with House Democrats on economic stimulus, but backtracked later in the night saying he would accept a standalone bill to fund the Payroll Support Program.
On Wednesday, more than a dozen unions representing workers in the airline industry signed a letter to Congressional leaders, urging them to approve a standalone bill to renew the Payroll Support Program.
“There continues to be strong, broad, and bipartisan willingness to protect jobs and livelihoods in the airline industry by extending the successful Payroll Support Program (PSP), which was part of the CARES Act,” the unions wrote to Congress today. “Unfortunately, efforts to do so did not come to fruition before the program expired on Sept. 30. As a result, several U.S. airlines had no choice but to move forward with tens of thousands of furloughs last week, and many more job losses are expected across the industry in the weeks ahead if the PSP is not extended.”
Funding another round of stimulus has been a contentious topic on Capitol Hill since the summer as getting House and Senate leaders to agree with the White House has been an issue. While there has been broad agreement on renewing aspects of the Paycheck Protection Program and a second round of $1,200 stimulus checks for Americans, Congress has been unable to send a comprehensive bill to the president.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi blasted Republicans for “blocking” relief for the airline industry.
“Tens of thousands of airline workers stand on the brink of being fired, losing their certification requirements and seeing their livelihoods and financial security ripped away,” Pelosi said. “Democrats provided a path forward to avert catastrophe for these workers. Chairman (Peter) DeFazio (D-Oregon) requested unanimous consent for his standalone bipartisan bill to extend the Payroll Support Program. Disappointingly, Republicans objected to the legislation.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy returned fire at Pelosi.
“Nancy Pelosi's all-or-nothing approach has derailed relief negotiations every single time,” McCarthy said. “Today is no different. At a minimum, Democrats should now join Republicans in re-opening the already-funded Paycheck Protection Program so businesses can keep paying their employees.”
The pandemic’s impact on travel
According to Southwest CEO Gary Kelly, domestic travel is down 70% from a year ago, and is at 1970s levels.
Due to concerns over the spread of the virus, several airlines have eliminated the middle seat on flights. Other airlines are capping the number of passengers on board flights.
In addition to these restrictions, international travel is largely restricted from the US. While some international travel is beginning to resume, flights originating or arriving in the US have mostly been eliminated amid the pandemic due to international travel restrictions.
Amid the pandemic, carriers are attempting to regain confidence in travel. Airlines are strictly enforcing mask wearing on board flights, and have been promoting sanitation efforts to eliminate the coronavirus from spreading among passengers.
“We hope you find comfort in the policies we’ve implemented to keep you safe, including blocking middle seats, using electrostatic spraying on surfaces in the airport and onboard between flights, and requiring masks. Wearing a mask is the No. 1 thing each of us can do to help control the spread of the virus and protect each other,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian wrote in a letter to customers.
How airlines are responding
Different airlines are addressing the drop in funds differently. For instance, discount carrier Southwest announced it is holding off on any layoffs or furloughs until 2021, the company announced this week.
“I remain grateful for that six months support,” Kelly said about the Payroll Support Program. “But the fact is it just did not go far enough or long enough. The pandemic has devastated travel and tourism.”
Southwest has asked its employees to accept pay cuts while it awaits potential federal funding in order to avoid layoffs.
Delta Air Lines said it would wait until November 1 before moving forward with job cuts
But other airlines have not been as fortunate. According to NBC News, American Airlines was forced to furlough 19,000 employees, and United Airlines furloughed 13,000 employees.
Meanwhile, longtime airline workers have been giving emotional goodbyes to their customers.