The new bill’s sponsors, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), chairman of the Commerce Committee, which oversees aviation, and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who leads the transportation funding subcommittee, said their bill would protect workers’ jobs until March 31 and ensure airline service continues to communities across the country.
This past March, when Congress passed the first round of coronavirus relief, known as the Cares Act, airlines were singled out for billions in help. The money came with the condition that carriers agree not to cut their workforces until Oct. 1, when it seemed as though the threat of the virus might have passed.
“The CARES Act successfully saved thousands of jobs that support the airline industry and provided these businesses with some breathing space after the drastic drop in air travel caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Wicker said in a statement. “However, the market has not turned around as much as we had hoped, and additional relief is needed.”
A recovery that began in late April appears to have reached a plateau that is well below normal passenger numbers. On Sunday, 848,000 people passed through Transportation Security Administration screening checkpoints, compared with 2.5 million on the equivalent day last year.
Over the summer, when it became clear the virus wasn’t going away, airlines began planning to lay off or furlough thousands of employees to save money. Some 40,000 jobs are on the line.
In response, labor unions launched a campaign to have the government step in with more money, eventually securing the support of company bosses, some of whom have visited Washington in recent days to make the case in person.
After a meeting with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows last week, American Airlines chief executive Doug Parker said it wasn’t fair to his employees that they faced losing their jobs after keeping passengers and cargo moving throughout the summer.
“The only problem we have is we don’t have a vehicle for getting it done,” Parker said.
The new bill could be a vehicle, but time is short to pass legislation before the Oct. 1 deadline.
The legislation would largely continue the payroll grant program in its current form but would give airlines the option to receive money based on more recent labor cost numbers.
Wicker and Collins are proposing to pull leftover money from an airline loan program that was also created by the Cares Act, as well as some excess funds for cargo carriers, to partially pay for the six-month extension. But the government would still need to provide an additional $11 billion to cover the cost.