A government aid package currently making its way through the US Congress calls for loans and payroll support for airlines and aviation industry workers of $78 billion altogether, but links the assistance to strict conditions regarding executive pay, stock buybacks, dividends and requirements to maintain employee levels through the third quarter of the year.

According to a Senate official familiar with the $2 trillion draft bill, the legislation as it stands on 25 March includes loans to passenger airlines and related businesses ($25 billion), cargo airlines ($4 billion) and business “critical to maintaining national security” ($17 billion).

Aside from loans, the Senate seeks to provide ”payroll support” to the tune of another $29 billion for passenger and cargo airlines, and $3 billion for contractors like baggage handlers and catering workers. This money must be used for wages, benefits and health care, the official adds.

Additional details about the payroll assistance remain unknown, though they would come with “government warrants”. The airline industry had been pushing lawmakers to provide payroll help in the form of grants, which would not need repayment.

The aid would help prop up an industry whose demand had fallen sharply practically overnight after the coronavirus spread into an international pandemic. 

The text of the bill as it currently stands sets conditions for this assistance, which include preventing airlines from furloughing employees until the end of September, putting a stop to stock buybacks and dividends until September 2021, and limits executive pay to $3 million per year, while forbidding ”golden parachutes” - large sums of money offered as severance pay if executives leave the company.

Should assisted companies violate the terms of the agreement, the government has written a clause into the bill that would allow it to claw back the support, the official says.

Exact details and language in the legislation are still being hammered out behind closed doors, but the Senate is expected to vote on the bill later in the day, before it goes to the House of Representatives for a vote there, and, ultimately, is signed into law by President Donald Trump.

Airlines have been heavily criticised for their past perceived behaviour of putting shareholders and investors ahead of their employees. While Republicans focused on getting help to the airlines so they could maintain their business and start up quickly again when the pandemic subsides, Democrats pushed for provisions that would protect workers and contractors affected by the sharp and sudden drop-off in business.

“Some 80 to 90% of passenger load has disappeared,” says Dick Durban, a Senator from Illinois, the home state of Chicago-based United Airlines as well as the headquarters of Boeing. “Employees have asked for help, and we are prepared to do that. But I do believe accountability and transparency are necessary.”

“I wished that we would have gotten more requirements on the airline industry on the grant section of this bill,” Senator Maria Cantwell says. Cantwell is one of two senators from Washington state, where Boeing has numerous factories and one of the US hotspots for the virus. “I will continue to fight for the aviation supply chain so that when we come out of the crisis that the US is well positioned to return to building Americas single largest export.”

Earlier this week, Boeing closed its Seattle-area factories for 14 days, and told suppliers to hold shipments for those factories. 

Meantime, airlines are beginning to extend their change waivers in anticipation that the sector may be affected and aircraft grounded longer than previously expected. American Airlines says on 25 March that its change fee waivers will be in effect for flgihts booked through 15 April, also for its non-refundable fares.