US airlines have expressed relief after legislators in Washington, DC reached an agreement on a deal to extend payroll protections to aviation workers to the tune of $15 billion.
The support, part of a $900 billion relief package that is due to be debated in Congress this week, would bring thousands of involuntarily furloughed aviation employees back on to airline payrolls, if only temporarily.
United Airlines chief executive Scott Kirby says the carrier will offer to re-hire many of those who were furloughed when the last aid bill ran out on 1 October.
That said, the industry is still suffering from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic – something that is unlikely to change until much of the population has access to a vaccine.
“We don’t expect customer demand to change much between now and the end of the first quarter of 2021,” Kirby writes. “The truth is, we just don’t see anything in the data that shows a huge difference in bookings over the next few months. That is why we expect the recall will be temporary.”
He adds that recent vaccine developments “have been nothing short of extraordinary”. However, the airline says that it will be “months and months” before a majority of the population can have access to them.
The 5,600-page bill was introduced into Congress earlier in the day, and the legislature is expected to vote on it later this week. After that it must be signed into law by President Donald Trump.
In a video message, Fort Worth-based American Airlines chief executive Doug Parker says that once the bill is passed, the airline will be “recalling all of our furloughed team members and restoring pay and benefits retroactive to December first”.
“If they get this passed into law tomorrow, we can actually have pay-checks cut for people by Christmas Eve, which would be wonderful,” he adds.
The agreement comes after months of negotiations between representatives of the democratic and republican parties, during which both sides tried to make political gains of the situation. Unions, airlines and other industry participants had repeatedly and strongly urged opposing lawmakers to come together in order to continue to support the industry as the coronavirus crisis drags on.
The compromise bill must be passed by the democratic-controlled House of Representatives as well as the republican-controlled Senate prior to presidential approval.
After passenger demand plummeted in March following various stay-at-home orders in the United States and abroad, the US government passed the so-called CARES act, a $2 trillion aid package designed to help the economy back on its feet. Of that amount, about $58 billion was reserved for the aviation industry in grants and loans.
But the global pandemic continued to disrupt travel and customer demand remained depressed six months later when the aid ran out, on 1 October, sending more than 30,000 aviation industry employees - the vast majority at United and American - into unemployment. The outlook remains bleak, with both domestic and international travel in the Americas still significantly lower than normal.
The US’ Transportation Security Administration, which is responsible for security processes at 450 airports across the country, says that it screened about 3 million customers in the past three days - about 35% of the number from the same three days a year ago.
With the extension of the government’s payroll support, airlines would be required to take back their furloughed workers and guarantee employment until the end of March 2021.