With just hours to go before mass layoffs decimate the airline industry slammed by coronavirus travel cutbacks, workers are pleading with Congress to pass a last-minute deal to save as many as 50,000 people from losing their paycheck.
“I feel like I’m being left behind and there’s nothing we can do. It’s extremely out of our hands, and we’re just sitting around terrified,” said Amanda Steinbrunn, a flight attendant who has been with United Airlines for five years.
She herself contracted Covid-19, recovered — and went on to help transport nurses and doctors. Last month the airline told her that she would “absolutely” be losing her job Oct. 1 if there was no extension passed to the payroll support program, she said. “I don’t have a backup plan. I’m going to be on the unemployment line like so many other people.”
In May, Congress passed HEROES Act legislation that bailed out nearly 75 percent of the airline’s payroll expenses with $25 billion in grants and $25 billion in loans, with another $10 billion for cargo airlines, with the stipulation that airlines not let any workers go until Oct. 1. At stake are close to 50,000 jobs for pilots, flight attendants, baggage handlers, counter agents and other airline and airport personnel.
It was expected that, by October, the U.S. would have had enough time to get the coronavirus under control and return to more typical travel and expenditure levels. However, garbled national guidance and inconsistent adherence to safety precautions squandered the bought time for travel and other industries.
Inconsistent adherence to safety precautions across the country has led to a spike in infections — squandering the bought time for travel and other industries waiting for an economic recovery.
Now, airline workers are hanging on for hopes of assistance from Congress to save their livelihoods.
“Without aid from the federal government, I will be laid off on October 1 and will lose my paycheck and my health insurance,” said Toni Valentine, who works for United Airlines Reservations in Detroit. “Hundreds of thousands of airline workers are facing financial ruin through no fault of our own. How will we take care of our families without a paycheck and health insurance?” she said.
After hitting rock bottom during coronavirus lockdowns, airline travel began to slowly rise again, but has plateaued well below previous year-over-year average levels. Despite new cleaning procedures from the airlines, passengers so far are largely unwilling to fly unless they have to, absent a safe and widely available vaccine.
Airlines have been feverishly negotiating with their labor unions and offering deals to employees to try to pursue all available options to reduce or delay costs and cuts, such as early retirement and long-term sabbaticals. Hard-hit commercial legacy carriers in particular have been under pressure.
United Airlines negotiated a deal with its pilot union to avoid furloughs until at least June 2021, but the rest of their workforce still faces furloughs, the company announced Monday. Last week, Delta announced it would delay furloughs until Nov. 1, allowing the airline more time to assess its financial situation. American Airlines is still on track to begin furloughs on Oct. 1 across its workforce.
“The airline industry and many of its employees are like Thelma and Louise, racing toward the abyss,” independent aviation analyst Bob Mann told NBC News in an email. “We’ve seen the movie. So, absent a rescue, we know the ending.”
But he said that reaching deeper into the government pockets to keep the industry afloat was well within the country’s interest.
“Does the nation want an airline industry ready to drive the economy when vaccines have been widely administered? If so, pay up, now, to keep the industry vital until then,” he said.
The critical national infrastructure that the airline industry provides — and that will be key to the nation’s economic recovery — could be severely affected by the sweeping industry cuts, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker told NBC News earlier this month. “We want to make sure that when the economy recovers, we are here.”
Many airline hubs are located in swing states, so the proposed cuts are in areas President Donald Trump needs to win, come Nov. 3. That could put pressure on his Republican allies in Congress to make a deal with Democrats.
As Democrats and Republicans zero in on the terms for a potential new coronavirus relief package, this week the Treasury department closed major loans with seven of the country’s top airlines.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told CNBC Tuesday that the administration does support further assistance for the airlines. “That’s something that’s critical to keep our airline workers,” he said. “Hopefully the airlines will postpone their actions.”
But he did not expect there would be a special carveout provision just for airlines. “There’s a lot of support we’ve already delivered for that industry,” Mnuchin said.
Labor unions strongly urged Congress to step up.
“The Machinists Union stands shoulder to shoulder with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in their effort to get a coronavirus relief package passed for all Americans,” said Robert Martinez Jr., president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
“It is an outrage that working families have already waited more than four months since the House passed the HEROES Act,” Martinez said. “The Machinists Union will do anything to support our membership and the tens of thousands of our airline members who will be laid off on Oct. 1.”
A major U.S. carrier could even be forced out of business, one industry leader cautioned earlier in the pandemic.
“I don’t want to get too predictive on that subject. But yes, most likely,” Boeing CEO David Calhoun said in an interview with Savannah Guthrie on NBC’s “TODAY” show in May, when asked if he thought a major U.S. carrier would have to go out of business.
“Something will happen when September comes around [and the aid expires]. Traffic levels will not be back to 100 percent. They won’t even be back to 25 percent. So there will definitely be adjustments that have to be made on the part of the airlines,” Calhoun said.