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Airline Workers Face Unemployment Line


Among the many things that have been radically changed by the coronavirus pandemic is the airline industry. Air travel demand is down a whopping 70% from last year, and tens of thousands of airline pilots, flight attendants, reservation agents and other industry workers are poised to lose their paychecks next week if Congress doesn't extend federal aid for airlines. NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: The nation's airlines are at a crossroads, or maybe I should say cross-runways. At the start of the year, on average, about 2.5 million people were flying every day. Now that's plummeted to around 700,000. And until there are widely available vaccines or treatments for COVID-19, most passengers won't be coming back anytime soon.

HELANE BECKER: You can't run an airline that's a third the size it was and expect to keep all the same people.

SCHAPER: Helane Becker is an airline industry analyst for investment bank Cowen.

BECKER: I feel like in this country, we've shifted from flattening the curve to waiting for a cure or a vaccine. And that just means the pain is going to be longer.

SCHAPER: In the CARES Act, Congress provided $25 billion in direct payroll support to the airlines so they could keep paying their employees through the end of September. Already, tens of thousands of workers have taken early retirements or other incentives to leave their jobs. But now the airlines are notifying another 75,000 that they may be out of a job October 1.

ISAIAH GONZALEZ: Getting that furlough letter in the mail was a complete shock to me.

SCHAPER: Isaiah Gonzalez is an aircraft maintenance worker for United at New York's LaGuardia Airport.

GONZALEZ: The first thing that came to mind was how I was going to support my family, the people who depend on me. How was I going to keep the income? How was I going to keep the family afloat?

SCHAPER: And Gonzalez is not alone.

TONI VALENTINE: Me getting furloughed is, like - it's devastating.

SCHAPER: Toni Valentine is a reservations agent for United Airlines in Detroit.

VALENTINE: I have six kids that depend on me.

SCHAPER: They range in age from 2 to 22, and Valentine says that's a houseful with a whole lot of bills. In addition, she says her husband suffered a serious stroke last year.

VALENTINE: And knowing that I may not have insurance, these benefits, is like - I feel like I failed.

SCHAPER: Often at loggerheads, the unions representing these and other airline employees are now in rare harmony with airline CEOs in pressing Congress for a six-month extension of the payroll support program.

NICHOLAS CALIO: The industry's in dire straits.

SCHAPER: Nick Calio heads the industry group Airlines for America.

CALIO: At one point, passenger travel was down 96%. It's now down 70% still. One-third of our planes are parked, not flying. And we are losing $5 billion a month.

SCHAPER: The airlines, unions and bipartisan majorities in Congress agree that the six months of payroll support worked in keeping airline employees off of unemployment rolls and that tens of thousands of layoffs now might send shock waves through the economy. Missouri Congressman Sam Graves is the ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee.

SAM GRAVES: We absolutely cannot let an entire sector of the economy collapse, and that's exactly what will happen if we do not get this extension done.

SCHAPER: Yet the airline funding is tied to broader coronavirus relief that the White House and Congress cannot agree upon. Here's American Airlines CEO Doug Parker.

DOUG PARKER: I just can't believe that we may not be able to do the right thing simply because our elected officials can't come to any sort of compromise agreement. We're better than that.

SCHAPER: Still, some wonder if providing billions more in taxpayer money doesn't just put off the inevitable, as airlines will need to restructure to match the reduced demand. Legislation that would extend payroll support for the airlines was introduced in the Senate this week. But if it isn't passed soon, thousands of airline employees may be out of work one week from today.

David Schaper, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHIL FRANCE'S "THE SWIMMER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.