Airline industry fights for financial relief in one form or another

With hopes of a broader coronavirus economic relief package scuttled until after the November election, the aviation industry shifted its focus Wednesday to winning agreement on a stand-alone bill that would extend a program to pay front-line workers for an additional six months.

It is not clear whether lawmakers will take up any of at least three bills that would extend the billions of dollars in support airlines have already received or come up with a separate vehicle. The White House, however, has expressed support for a Senate bill introduced last month by two Republicans.

Aviation leaders had hoped to be included in a broader coronavirus relief package, in part to avoid the perception of special treatment for the industry. But once it became clear that the White House was done negotiating, industry leaders quickly shifted gears.

In a letter sent Wednesday to House and Senate leaders, a coalition of groups, including the trade association Airlines for America, and labor unions, including the Air Line Pilots Association and International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, urged swift passage of a measure that would extend government support for carriers.

“In the absence of an overall COVID-19 relief package, we urge you to advance stand-alone legislation to extend the [payroll support program],” the groups wrote. “During circumstances as dire and significant as these, an idea that enjoys resounding support from majorities in both parties and in both houses of Congress should not fail. We call on leaders to resolve any procedural issues and proceed as quickly as possible to extend the PSP in time to preserve this extremely effective and efficient jobs and infrastructure program.”

There has been growing frustration that despite widespread bipartisan support for extending the payroll support program, Congress has been unable forge an agreement. The lack of action forced airlines to furlough more than 33,000 workers on Oct. 1. Airline executives have said the furloughs could be reversed but only if lawmakers move quickly to pass an extension of the program.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, offered an impassioned rebuke Friday when his airline-only aid bill stalled in the face of GOP opposition. The expired aid program keeping flight attendants, mechanics, pilots and gate agents on the payroll had been scandal-free and effective, he said.

“Tens of thousands of those people have been furloughed as of yesterday,” DeFazio said. “They’ve lost their jobs, they’ve lost their health care, some of them are going to lose their homes. They don’t know how they’re going to make ends meet, feed their kids or do anything else. All because the Republicans in the House of Representatives would not agree and the Republicans in the Senate will not agree to a larger package which contains these provisions.”

That larger aid package, DeFazio said, would provide relief to tens of millions of Americans by extending health care and unemployment aid, sending stimulus checks to millions of Americans, and helping small businesses. As his speaking time expired and DeFazio was told he no longer had the floor, he erupted.

“Well I’m sorry, I’m not going to stop talking,” he said, at nearly a yell. “I’m tired of bureaucracy around here. It’s time to do real things for the American people. And this is real. These people’s lives are at stake.”

In March, Congress passed the last round of coronavirus relief as part of a $2 trillion package known as the Cares Act. Airlines received more than $50 billion, a portion of which was designed to keep employees including pilots, catering workers and flight attendants on the job. But as a condition of accepting the money, airlines had to agree not to cut their workforce before the end of September. Many thought that by fall, the threat of the virus would have passed and airlines would rebound. However, over the summer, it became clear that the threat had not passed and that the industry was far from a recovery. Airline unions began pushing for a second round of payroll support.

Democrats had hoped to include support for the airlines as part of a broader relief package that also would provide support for states, cities and other industries. Republicans, however, sought a narrower measure.

But on Tuesday, Trump threw those negotiations into turmoil with a series of tweets in which he declared there would be no coronavirus relief package until after the election.

“I have instructed my representatives to stop negotiating until after the election when, immediately after I win, we will pass a major Stimulus Bill that focuses on hardworking Americans and Small Business,” Trump wrote.

The tweet drew shocked and angry reactions from labor unions, which have spent months gathering support for an extension. And it surprised many lawmakers, who, given the state of the industry, said airlines should be given additional support.

Hours later, the president tweeted again, this time calling on Congress to “IMMEDIATELY” approve billions in aid for airlines and small businesses, employing “unused funds” from an earlier aid package. He also urged Democrats to direct new $1,200 stimulus checks to Americans.

But now the question is whether Congress can reach an agreement.

In late September, Sens. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, introduced a bill that would extend the payroll support program through the end of March. The measure would have provided $28 billion in funding, a portion of which would come from unused money from the first relief package. The bill would require an additional $11 billion in funding.

During a hearing last month before the Senate Banking Committee, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the administration supported the legislation.

A committee aide said Wicker, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, is “working with his colleague to see if there is a path forward.”

The aide said Wicker remains committed to extending the payroll support program.

A similar bill, co-sponsored by Rep. David Joyce, R-Ohio, and Del. Stacey Plaskett, D-Virgin Islands, also sought to extend the payroll support program through March.

After Congress missed the Sept. 30 deadline for approving an extension, DeFazio on Friday introduced another stand-alone bill to provide $25.5 billion to passenger airlines, $3 billion to airline contractors and $300 million to cargo carriers. As a condition of accepting the money, airlines would have to reinstate furloughed employees and provide them with back pay. But the measure failed to advance.

Lowell Valencia-Miller, who teaches management at the University of Denver and helped start Frontier Airlines in 1994, said it was an optimistic sign that Trump and Pelosi were open to an airline-only bill.

Still, he added, “I’m not a politician. I’m a business person. I always say I’ll believe it when I see it.” And the narrow aid effort at issue, he added, falls short of the broader need.

“From the airlines’ perspective, they’d love to have something specific to their industry. But that’s not the end, that’s only the beginning,” Valencia-Miller said. “It’s not just the airlines. It’s also hotels and rental car agencies and restaurants and everything that goes into what we consider tourism, that is equally affected by covid-19.”

The airlines, whose employees must follow strict federal standards on training and proficiency, can make an argument about why keeping workers on the payroll is particularly important in their business, he said. And the airlines are the “facilitators of tourism,” having a huge impact in communities where they serve and are based.

“Certainly, the economic benefit from the federal government will go a long way in helping them survive through this unprecedented time. The airlines will take whatever they can get,” Valencia-Miller said.

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