Source: US Amalgamated Transit Union
Airline executives and workers ended an exhausting and turbulent week uncertain about their future, as a bipartisan push for federal payroll aid for the ailing industry fizzled in the face of a broader struggle over how the federal government should boost the nation’s pandemic-stricken economy.
Yet even as airlines’ pleas for swift assistance went unanswered and deep layoffs continued, other parts of the hard-hit transportation industry found their severe problems back in the mix just days after President Donald Trump on Tuesday declared stimulus talks over until after the election.
By Friday, his administration was back preparing a roughly $1.8 trillion plan.
“Go Big!” Trump tweeted.
With the White House now negotiating with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., over a broader deal, aid for bus drivers, train operators and flight attendants is again part of a wider conversation about potential financial assistance for millions of unemployed Americans and small businesses ravaged by the nation’s failure to control the pandemic.
But the prospects for agreement remain uncertain, given the highly partisan moment, differing priorities and skepticism toward a far-reaching package among some in the Republican-controlled Senate.
In insisting on a comprehensive deal, one that also includes funding and standards for a national coronavirus testing and contact tracing program Pelosi said is needed to “crush” the virus, the speaker on Thursday backed away from her earlier openness to passing a stand-alone airline bill.
Layoffs of more than 30,000 workers began Oct. 1, after protections from an earlier aid provision expired.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, decried the “incredible whiplash” of recent days. “We have people out there, right now, living in incredible uncertainty, and pain, and it is wrong, and we have to stay focused on them,” she said in an update to union members.
There was bipartisan urgency on aid for the airline industry, given the deepness of the job losses and the potential economic boost to communities nationwide when tourism and business travel eventually become more appealing when the virus is brought under control.
But there was also some hesitancy to put airlines at the front of the line.
“I don’t oppose an airline-only bill. I just don’t think it’s right,” said John Costa, international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union.
The Democrats’ $2.2 trillion “Heroes Act,” covering small businesses and many sectors of the economy, represented the better approach, he said. That bill is “for everyone, for everyone to survive with, to be safe with, to keep working with.”
Costa said he was not surprised Pelosi made clear there will not be a stand-alone bill for airlines without a broader bill. “What are we going to do, have stand-alone bills for everyone? That’s not the way Congress works,” Costa said.
The Democrats’ broader stimulus bill includes $32 billion for transit systems nationwide, which have been ravaged by low ridership and face huge service cuts and massive layoffs of bus drivers and others without additional aid.
“The crisis is worsening, and the industry’s very survival is at stake,” said Paul Skoutelas, president of the American Public Transportation Association.
Even the massive Heroes Act did not cover large numbers of people who have made urgent appeals for assistance.
While Congress has sparred over the stand-alone airline bill, bipartisan supporters have pushed a separate bill to provide billions of aid for school bus companies, motor coach operators and passenger vessels, industries that announced they have laid off or furloughed more than 300,000 workers due to the pandemic.
Some union leaders had said flatly they did not support legislation that benefits only certain industries.
“We know our colleagues in the airline industry are hurting, but we also know that unemployed workers are hurting,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
“And we know that small businesses are hurting. And we know that we have already … almost a million layoffs in schools and in state and local governments.”
“And so we have asked our brothers and sisters in the airline industry to do all of this together, not to do a stand-alone bill,” Weingarten said.
But Cecil Roberts, international president of the United Mine Workers of America, argued that while the union supports a bill that would provide support to all Americans, Congress should still act quickly to help airline workers.
“Just because we cannot provide all workers the help they need at this moment should not mean that we will deny relief to airline workers, especially when both parties agree it should be done,” Roberts wrote in a letter sent to all House members.
He pointed to the need to “reverse the furloughs that are already happening and … prevent the further avalanche of lost airline jobs that are coming in the next few days.”
Advocates pressing to aid airline workers said whiplash from mixed White House messages prolonged, and undercut, their efforts.
“The White House, it seems, every hour has some new position. That’s really hurt this process,” said one union official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy. Some on Capitol Hill had been open to an airlines-only bill if there was no hope of passing the broader relief legislation, the official said.
“When you don’t know if it truly failed, because there are so many mixed messages, it makes it hard to make a call. That’s been part of the problem,” the official said.
Whether airline-only legislation – or any bill – can wend its way successfully through both houses of Congress remains unclear.
Two Senate Republicans on Thursday sent up a flare, registering their opposition to simply adding billions more in payroll grants for airlines to pass along to their employees.
“The excess capacity of the airline sector will not be resolved in the near future and continuing to force the entire payroll obligation onto the taxpayers is not sustainable,” Sens. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, said in a statement Thursday.
The senators said airlines should begin, or continue, to take out low-interest loans offered under previous relief legislation so they can eventually “repay the taxpayers once air travel picks back up.”
Other Fortune 500 companies, such as hotel chains and restaurant groups, have not received taxpayer-funded grants, the senators wrote, and considering legislation for airline grants “should not happen unless there are adequate protections for taxpayers and the opportunity to offer related amendments.
Even before the public statements from Pelosi, as well as Toomey and Lee, sticking points had emerged in reconciling the airline-only bills offered in the Senate and House.
One has centered on a provision in the bill co-sponsored by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.
The Wicker bill calls for transferring unused funds from the CARES Act to aid airlines now, including $11.1 billion from a special loan program that was quietly crafted for Boeing. The besieged plane maker declined to seek loans under the program. There is disagreement on the importance relying on those funds for this new purpose, with some pointing to a political upside in doing so and others seeing a distraction.
That would also have to be resolved in any broader package.
As the talks go on, other transportation sectors continue to issue urgent calls for relief.
In a letter sent Thursday to House and Senate leaders, Amtrak urged swift passage of a measure that would extend government support for the passenger railroad, warning that without additional funding by the end of the year it would need to cut an additional 2,400 jobs, further reduce train service, and defer major capital projects.
“We will be unable to avoid more drastic impacts that could have long lasting effects on our Northeast Corridor infrastructure and the national rail system,” Amtrak chief executive William Flynn wrote in the letter.
Amtrak this month slashed operations and its workforce, furloughing 2,050 workers. The 11% reduction in its workforce came as a direct result of the coronavirus crisis, which has substantially cut into its revenue.
The railroad said it needs up to $4.9 billion in federal assistance – including nearly $2.9 billion in supplemental funding – to help make up for losses caused by the pandemic and “stave off bankruptcy.” Amtrak said it also has identified $5.2 billion in additional investments to be included as part of any economic recovery proposal enacted by Congress to help the nation recover from the impacts of the pandemic.
Among projects that could be scaled back or delayed are planned improvements at Washington’s Union Station and New York’s Penn Station, the nation’s two busiest rail stops, and the replacement of the Civil War-era Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel. An additional 1,625 jobs would be cut from state-funded routes, the company said.