Airline labor unions seek billions to extend payroll aid

A United Airlines flight crew walks through the terminal at San Francisco International Airport on April 12, 2020 in San Francisco, California.

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

Unions representing tens of thousands of airline employees on Thursday asked lawmakers for $32 billion in additional government aid to maintain their jobs through the end of March 2021, as air travel demand remains low because of the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. passenger and cargo airlines, as well as airline contractors, had $32 billion in federal aid to keep paying workers under the $2 trillion CARES Act, which Congress passed in March. Terms of that aid prohibit the airlines from laying off or cutting the pay rates of employees through Sept. 30 of this year.

The unions on Thursday urged House and Senate leadership to pass “a clean extension” of that program, arguing that doing so would minimize additional applications or negotiations between the Treasury and airlines. 

“This is the simplest and fastest way to maintain Congress’ historic commitment to keep aviation workers on payroll— many of whom are on the front lines of this deadly virus,” said a letter signed by unions representing flight attendants, pilots, mechanics and other employees, to congressional leaders.

Spokespeople for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

All major U.S. passenger airlines accepted federal support, but executives have warned job cuts are possible once the terms expire this fall. A spokesperson for Airlines for America, which represents American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Southwest and other major carriers said it “is not currently seeking additional federal assistance.”

Airlines are posting their first losses in years as the virus, and measures to stop it from spreading, sent demand tumbling to the lowest levels in more than five decades. Some executives don’t expect demand to recover to 2019 levels for more than a year.

Airlines have parked hundreds of jets, cut scores of routes, and thousands of workers have volunteered unpaid or partially paid leave in an effort to save cash.

Congress, meantime, is likely to begin negotiations on its next major coronavirus relief bill in July. 

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