Tens of thousands of airline workers will lose their jobs in a matter of days if Congress is unable to break through its gridlock, even though a majority of lawmakers support heading off the looming layoffs for an industry that's been decimated by the coronavirus.
Airline unions have been pleading with Congress for months to extend the Payroll Support Program, a $32 billion program of airline payroll support grants given as part of the CARES Act, a condition of which required that airlines not involuntarily lay off workers until after Sept. 30.
Without extending the program, which will require a $28 billion cash infusion, airlines say they will have to start laying off pilots, flight attendants, mechanics and more. At least some percentage of those workers, in virtually every community across the country, will head to the unemployment office — right before the November election.
But so far, no aid appears to be coming from Capitol Hill, absent a last-ditch effort.
"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," American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said at a rally outside the Capitol last week.
Congress has shown some flashes of desire, but so far no follow through. Standalone bills to extend payroll support for aviation workers have gone nowhere in either chamber, despite a failed effort by Senate leaders to fast-track the legislation in that chamber. The fast-track process, which surveys senators about whether they would support quick passage of a bill, found objections from at least three Senate Republicans. Now the effort is on ice.
Advocates and lawmakers have all but given up on those standalone bills, instead resting their hopes on a broader relief bill which has been the subject of weeks of unsuccessful negotiations. House Democrats are discussing a slimmed down coronavirus aid bill that's expected to include airline aid, giving the industry a sliver of hope for an extension. But there's no guarantee that it will fare any better in Washington's hyperpartisan atmosphere.
And the clock is working against them, with just three days left and partisan discord at an all-time high, not to mention a government funding deadline to meet on the same day, Sept. 30.
Setting partisanship aside, a question has hung over deliberations on the Hill: Why should airline workers be spared with a massive cash injection from Congress when millions of employees in countless other industries have already lost their jobs or are on the brink of unemployment? If travel isn't expected to rebound for years, some experts think the time to rip off the bandage is now.
"Is six months going to make any difference in terms of when the demand starts building up?" said Kenneth Button, a professor and transportation economics expert at George Mason University. "In six months time, are we going to be in a different position than we are now? It’s not looking good, to be honest."
He said there are worries about a shortage of skilled workers if employees get laid off and either retire, change careers or migrate to working in other countries where aviation returns more quickly than here.
"The question is really what’s the minimum viable size you can have so that you can expand when Covid dies down, so they can surge forward once the market opens up," he said.
Airline industry analyst Henry Harteveldt said that Congress declining to give airlines additional aid may force the carriers to make "unpleasant but necessary business decisions that make them more efficient businesses as a result," although the effect on workers is "heartbreaking."
Airline leaders, though, insist that they can move in a positive direction with more help. JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes recently told CNBC that the payroll support extension is "not a bridge to nowhere."
"I passionately believe it's a bridge to somewhere," Hayes said. "We don't need a full recovery in  for the industry to stand on its own two feet. We just need to get back to somewhere closer to normal and we can take it from there."
Other underwater transportation industries say they should get a first shot at support before airlines get their second helping.
"With other modes of transportation, like the airlines, asking for more money in addition to what they received in the CARES Act, we are asking for Congress and the Administration to help us first before giving even more to those industries," said Peter Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association, which has said that an estimated 40 percent of its businesses could be forced to close by the end of this year.
We're hearing that the House is drafting a new COVID relief bill today, and that airlines (private companies!) are ALREADY included, but public transit (a public good!) is not. That's unacceptable.
— Transportation for America (@T4America) September 24, 2020
Transit advocates also want Congress to meet transit agencies’ ask for $32 billion to aid their recovery this year.
“We're hearing that the House is drafting a new COVID relief bill ... and that airlines (private companies!) are ALREADY included, but public transit (a public good!) is not. That's unacceptable,” tweeted the progressive group Transportation for America last week.
Other hard-hit industries like hotels and restaurants have also yet to benefit from industry-specific federal aid, despite devastating job losses.
Aviation unions have been making the case that airline employees have a key role in the country's pandemic recovery.
"Extending the PSP ensures that airline pilots, flight attendants, and other workers continue to support our airlines’ role in fueling our economy, assisting the U.S. military, and transporting American goods and services," said the heads of unions representing flight attendants and pilots in a recent letter to Congress.
Meanwhile, lawmakers — who are among the very most frequent fliers, even during the coronavirus era — continue to receive the most personal entreaties from airline crews facing the prospect of being out of a job very soon.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who favors an extension of the PSP, said at a recent hearing that he’s being asked by flight attendants and pilots every time he flies about the legislative efforts to prevent the industry layoffs — including getting a hug from a flight attendant on one recent flight as she thanked him for his “hard work.”
Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) said that he co-sponsored the House version of the bill after an American Airlines flight attendant handed him a note asking for his support on a recent flight.