Anxious days for airline workers as mass layoffs loom

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, during a Sept. 9 protest outside the Capitol. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The clock is ticking for tens of thousands of anxious airline employees, who face mass reductions when the government's current payroll support program expires on Sept. 30.

Where it stands: Airline CEOs met Thursday with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who said President Trump would support an additional $25 billion from Congress to extend the current aid package through next March.

  • But lawmakers remain deeply divided over a broader economic relief package, and it's not clear they'll act on any stimulus deal before the November election.

What they're saying: “I never thought I’d say $25 billion was a small number, but compared to $1.5 trillion, it’s a rather small amount of additional assistance that could potentially keep 30,000 to 50,000 workers on the payroll,” Meadows told reporters after the meeting.

  • Help for airlines was not part of a last-ditch, $1.5 trillion stimulus bill proposed earlier this week by a bipartisan group of House members known as the Problem Solvers Caucus.
  • Meadows said the White House has looked at a "number of options" involving executive actions, but "all of them are less than ideal."
  • "There's a few things that we could do but I don't know that it actually solves the problem of curtailing furloughed workers," he said.

The big picture: U.S. airlines were on their way to another strong year when the pandemic hit, halting most air traffic and causing airline revenue to evaporate overnight.

  • Under the initial CARES Act passed by Congress in April, airlines received $25 billion to keep planes flying and workers on the payroll during the crisis.
  • At the same time, airlines have slashed costs and reduced staff through voluntary buyouts and furloughs, while raising debt in public markets and using their frequent flyer programs as collateral.

But the public health crisis has persisted and air travel shows no signs of a recovery.

  • Today, U.S. passenger volumes are still running 65% below last year, according to Airlines for America.
  • “In March, we all hoped to be in a very different place by now," said Sara Nelson, president of the flight attendants' union. "But as the U.S. continues to lead the world in cases and deaths, (global) aviation demand is still down 85% and we are cut off from the rest of the world."

Airlines are bending over backward to lure travelers back, with enhanced cleaning procedures and the elimination of unpopular fees for changing or canceling flights.

  • Mask policies are being strictly enforced — with the threat of a lifetime ban for passengers who fail to comply.
  • And many airlines have extended a promise to keep middle seats open to promote social distancing.
  • Some are adding flights from northern cities to warm weather destinations this winter to entice passengers to travel.

Yes, but: With the peak leisure travel season over and virtually no business travel happening, airlines — and their employees — face a grim deadline in less than two weeks.

  • American Airlines plans to cut 19,000 employees and United warned of more than 16,000 cuts.
  • Delta Air Lines said enough flight attendants, service reps and baggage handlers volunteered to leave that it should be able to avoid involuntary furloughs. Some 2,000 pilots are still at risk, however.

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