Airlines

U.S. airline labor unions seek billions more to extend coronavirus payroll aid as demand remains weak

Key Points
  • Congress approved $32 billion in coronavirus aid for airline workers in March.
  • Travel demand remains weak, and the unions are seeking to double the funding so it extends through March 31.
  • Airlines are trying to reduce staff through voluntary measures.
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Aviation unions ask Congress to extend payroll aid through March 31, 2021

Unions representing tens of thousands of airline employees asked lawmakers on Thursday for $32 billion in additional government aid to maintain their jobs through the end of March, as air travel demand remains low because of the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. passenger and cargo airlines, as well as airline contractors, had $32 billion in federal aid to keep paying workers under the $2 trillion CARES Act that was signed into law in March. Terms of that aid prohibit the airlines from laying off or cutting the pay rates of employees through Sept. 30.

Congress is likely to begin negotiations on the next major coronavirus relief bill in July. 

The unions on Thursday urged House and Senate leadership to pass "a clean extension" of the CARES Act, arguing that doing so would minimize additional applications or negotiations between the Treasury and airlines. 

"This is the simplest and fastest way to maintain Congress' historic commitment to keep aviation workers on payroll — many of whom are on the front lines of this deadly virus," said a letter signed by unions representing flight attendants, pilots, mechanics and other employees to congressional leaders.

Spokespeople for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell did not respond to a request for comment. 

All major U.S. passenger airlines accepted federal support, but executives have warned that job cuts are possible once the terms expire this fall. A spokesperson for Airlines for America, which represents American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Southwest and other major carriers said it "is not currently seeking additional federal assistance."

Airlines are posting their first losses in years as the virus, and measures to stop it from spreading, sent demand tumbling to the lowest levels in more than five decades. Some executives don't expect demand to recover to 2019 levels for more than a year.

Airlines have parked hundreds of jets, cut scores of routes, and thousands of workers have volunteered unpaid or partially paid leave in an effort to save cash.