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Relief for U.S. Airline Workers Looks Fleeting as Washington Remains Deadlocked

Madhu Unnikrishnan

September 22nd, 2020 at 1:15 PM EDT

Two Republican senators introduced a bill to extend the payroll support program for airline employees through March of next year, but whether the legislation will even be debated in times remains an open question.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), chairman of the Science, Commerce, and Transportation Committee, and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairman of the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, introduced a bill Sept. 21 that extends $28 billion in payroll support for passenger airlines and $300 million for cargo carriers. An additional $3 billion would be made available for contractors supplying the airline industry.

The bill would tap $17.4 billion in existing and unused appropriations through the CARES Act, passed earlier this year, which provided $25 billion in payroll support through Sept. 30, with the remaining $11 billion coming from new appropriations. In exchange, airlines must pledge not to furlough employees through March of next year, and the Treasury Department can extract stock warrants. Airlines taking the funds also must promise not to repurchase shares or pay dividends through March 2022.

The bill comes at a crucial time for airlines. When the CARES Act’s payroll support programs expires at the end of this month, tens of thousands of employees could be let go. “The payroll support program that was included in the CARES Act saved over 700,000…jobs,” Collins said in a statement to Airline Weekly. “Our legislation to extend this lifeline would help frontline employees to continue to receive a paycheck and require airlines to maintain flights to every community they serve.” 

Airlines have warned that they will be much smaller and will therefore need fewer employees to match demand. “The market has not turned around as much as we had hoped, and additional relief is needed to prevent more than 60,000 aviation sector employees from losing their jobs beginning October 1,” Wicker said.

Airline labor groups have stressed the urgency of the extension, and airline CEOs have urged a “clean extension” of the payroll support program to prevent massive layoffs. “We appreciate that Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker and Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Susan Collins recognize that time is running out for airline workers and have introduced a free-standing extension of the PSP to prevent massive layoffs and disruptions to the U.S. airline industry,” the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) said. “ALPA implores Congress to move legislation to extend the [payroll support program] by any means possible before October 1.”

And that’s the rub. Congress has remained deadlocked for months on further fiscal aid for the coronavirus pandemic. The House of Representatives in May passed the $3 trillion HEROES Act, which has not been debated in the Senate. The upper house considered a $500 billion bill earlier this month — which did not include any further aid for airlines — that fizzled. The White House has at times stressed the importance of more aid, and at times has signaled it does not see the need. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve Bank has changed monetary policy to aid the economy, but Chairman Jerome Powell has called for more fiscal aid from Congress.

And against this backdrop, a presidential election looms, as does a Congressional recess. To complicate things further, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died last week, and Senate Republicans have pledged to fill the seat — and much of their time — before the Nov. 3 election.

Oct. 1 is just over a week away, and with Washington occupied with a fierce battle over the open Supreme Court seat, the election, and the inability of the two chambers of Congress to agree on anything, it appears unlikely that airline employees will get the relief promised by the Wicker-Collins bill.



Madhu Unnikrishnan

September 22nd, 2020 at 1:15 PM EDT

Photo credit:  FEMA/Bill Koplitz

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