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Mon Aug 3, 2020, 02:10 PM

The Fight to Save Jobs in the Airline Industry

Three weeks ago, Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-C.W.A., received a call from a veteran flight attendant who has been working for twenty-five years and who has continued to work during the coronavirus pandemic. “He loves flying, he loves his career,” Nelson told me recently. During a flight to Los Angeles, the flight attendant told her, he’d had a panic attack triggered by the possibility that he might contract the virus and become severely ill. During the layover, he went to his hotel room and sheltered in place. He was too scared to leave his room and couldn’t go out to get food. Room service seemed potentially dangerous, and there was no access to a microwave in the hotel, which meant that he had no place to heat the soup he had in his bag. He ended up terrified, isolated and alone, eating the soup cold, straight out of the can.

“He’s been through all this before,” Nelson continued. She noted that the flight attendant had, like many others, lost his pension and taken a pay reduction after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, sent the airline industry into crisis. “And here we are again,” Nelson said, noting that workers are now facing similar hardships. “This has been real whiplash for people. It’s hard. There are a lot of people who went into work and they felt like they were doing a real service to the country, and they were. And there were other people who were high-risk, and couldn’t go to work, but also didn’t know how they were going to pay their bills.” She started to choke up.

Early in the pandemic, when almost all air travel had suddenly stopped, President Donald Trump and the Secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchin, spoke about the airline industry during a press conference. “This is worse than 9/11. They are almost ground to a halt,” Mnuchin said. He added that, despite the fact that there was almost no passenger demand, it was important that airlines still provide service to every part of the country. “Although we don’t want people to travel unless it’s critical, we want to maintain, for critical travel, the right to have domestic travel.” He had just met with the C.E.O.s of the largest airlines, and, although he would not talk specifically about the potential for a government bailout of the industry, he said that airlines were strategically important and employed a lot of workers, adding, “We’ll be working with Congress on this.” President Trump leaned in to the microphone and said, “The airline industry will be in good shape.”

In March, Congress passed the cares Act, a two-trillion-dollar coronavirus bailout package, which set aside fifty billion dollars for the airline industry: twenty-five billion of it was for government-backed loans, to be drawn down when needed, and the rest went toward a payroll-support program that would be distributed as grants intended to preserve passenger-airline jobs. Each participating airline received seventy-six per cent of its payroll costs from the middle of 2019. (Portions of the grants are supposed to be paid back over a ten-year period, and the government will receive warrants, a form of equity ownership in the airlines, for ten per cent of the grant value.) “The business fell off a cliff,” Nelson told me. “Literally fell off a cliff. And if there had not been a shoring up right then, the vast majority of airlines would have filed for bankruptcy. And the public would have lost any sort of control of how the airline industry would look at the other end of this.”



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