U.S. airline CEOs met with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows on Thursday, making a last-minute attempt to convince officials to approve more coronavirus aid as mass job cuts are set to hit the industry next month.
After the meeting, Meadows said the White House is open to a stand-alone package for the sector, reiterating comments from last month. President Donald Trump late last month said the White House was weighing executive action to support the industry, but provided few details.
Airline stocks pared earlier losses following the meeting, which was attended by American Airlines CEO Doug Parker, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby and Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly, but the shares — except for United — still ended the day lower.
Airlines received $25 billion in federal aid in the March CARES Act that prohibits them from cutting jobs through Sept. 30. With that date less than two weeks away, executives urged the White House to reach a deal on a new national bailout package as more than 30,000 sector jobs are at risk starting next month.
The airline chiefs and labor unions that represent most of their workers are seeking another $25 billion in federal payroll grants that would preserve jobs through the end of March. Demand for air travel has been stuck at around 30% of last year's levels after a strong rebound failed to materialize this summer, generally carriers' most lucrative season. It could take three years or more for demand to return to 2019 levels, industry leaders have said.
Lawmakers and the White House have been at loggerheads for much of the summer over the amount of aid and what it would include, though Meadows expressed optimism about a deal this week.
Additional airline payroll grants won public support from a bipartisan group of lawmakers and Trump last month.
"We had a very good meeting with the chief [of staff]," said Southwest's Kelly after exiting the meeting. "The first CARES Act kept this country out of a depression and I think the only mistake that was made is that it didn't go far enough and long enough."
Parker said the executives are also in contact with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about a new national coronavirus package.
"We airline CEOs are here on behalf of the people that work for us ... keeping our country moving when our country is largely paralyzed," American's Parker said after the meeting. "Without action they're going to be furloughed on Oct. 1 and it's not fair."
American, which has been the most vocal about additional federal payroll support, said it expects to cut 19,000 jobs as early as next month. United said it could slash more than 16,000 employees, but it recently reached a preliminary cost-cutting deal with its pilots' union that could preserve close to 3,000 pilot jobs at least through mid-2021.
Airline executives have urged employees to take leaves of absence and buyouts, before turning to involuntary cuts. Tens of thousands signed up, helping lower airlines' payroll costs.
Southwest has said it doesn't expect to cut jobs this year after 17,000 staff members, about a quarter of its payroll, volunteered to leave temporarily or permanently. Delta Air Lines this week said it won't have to furlough most of its employees thanks to voluntary leaves and buyouts as well as shorter schedules. Atlanta-based Delta is still in talks with its pilots' union about ways to avoid the planned furloughs of more than 1,900 people starting this fall.
"There's urgency with our Oct. 1 deadline," said Sara Nelson, a United Airlines flight attendant and president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents some 50,000 cabin crew members at nearly 20 carriers. "We need a relief bill now before it's too late."
Flight attendants have been demonstrating outside lawmakers' local offices in recent days to urge them to reach a new aid package and plan to continue those activities next week.