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Airlines Hold Out Hope for More Aid After Mnuchin, Pelosi Talk

Madhu Unnikrishnan
October 7th, 2020 at 2:11 PM EDT

Update: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin held a second call on Wednesday on a standalone airline relief bill, signaling that the industry is a priority.

When President Trump tweeted on Tuesday that the White House will no longer negotiate with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on another coronavirus stimulus package, he torpedoed the best chance furloughed airline workers had to return to their jobs.

Trump quickly pivoted, tweeting he would sign a standalone bill to extend the payroll support program for airlines. Senators Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) introduced a $28 billion airline bill last month, and a bill introduced by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman, is stalled in the lower chamber.

Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin spoke Wednesday about extending payroll support for the airline industry, and Pelosi told the secretary that Republicans are blocking the bill, Drew Hammill, a top Pelosi aide, wrote on Twitter. “The Secretary inquired about a standalone airlines bill. The Speaker reminded him that Republicans blocked that bill on Friday [and] asked him to review the DeFazio bill so that they could have an informed conversation,” Hammill said.

Congress is effectively out of session until Oct. 19, after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) cancelled further Senate votes until that date due to a rapidly spreading coronavirus outbreak that has forced at least three Republican senators into quarantine. Meanwhile, the Senate is occupied with a priority of McConnell’s and Trump’s: Scheduling meetings and hearings to fill a Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last month.

Despite this, further airline aid has broad bipartisan support in the Senate, and the Wicker-Collins bill could come up for a vote when the Senate returns could or be attached to other legislation, a source close to the Senate Commerce Committee told Airline Weekly.

In the meantime, more than 30,000 airline workers are being furloughed. American Airlines began furloughing 19,000 employees on Oct. 1 but says the could be recalled if Congress passes a bill. The airline also is dropping service to 11 cities it was required to serve through the CARES Act next month. “We will continue to make the case in Washington that action is needed to help workers across the country and lead America to the other side of this pandemic,” a spokesman for American said. United, which is furloughing more than 13,000 employees, said it will reverse the process if Congress comes up with more aid, a spokesman said.

Southwest Airlines, which has not furloughed any employees in more than 50 years, warned that it could use furloughs as a “last resort,” CEO Gary Kelly said. In a video message to employees, Kelly said non-union employees will take a 10% pay cut next year through January 2022. Negotiations will begin with unions for concessions, “because of the inaction of the federal government,” he said, warning that Southwest does not have time for “long, drawn-out, complex negotiations.” New contracts should be in place by Jan. 1, he urged.

The carrier’s sometimes fractious unions are resisting the call. “Concessions from employees will not materially impact our airline’s bottom line,” the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association said. The flight attendants union added that concessions are not the answer. Instead, both unions are urging members and management to lobby Congress for more aid.

“ALPA calls on Congress to immediately pass standalone legislation that provides meaningful assistance to the frontline workers who keep our aviation system moving safely each and every day,” Joe DePete, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, said. “Airline pilots are considered ‘essential’ to the U.S. economy, especially in challenging times, which is why we will continue to seek solutions that provide relief to our industry,” he added. “However, for the thousands of aviation workers who have been grounded, a return to flight may not be possible.”

Madhu Unnikrishnan
October 7th, 2020 at 2:11 PM EDT

Photo credit:  Architect of the Capitol

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