UPDATED: Mixed messaging on airline relief extends uncertainty for 40,000 furloughed workers

Oct 6, 2020

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A flurry of tweets from President Trump on Tuesday appeared to sow only more uncertainty about whether airlines would get a second round of coronavirus aid before the election.

In the span of just seven hours, the president made an about face on the issue of additional coronavirus pandemic aid to airlines. After tweeting that he had ordered Republicans to end negotiations with Congressional Democrats to end relief talks at 2:48 p.m. ET, Trump came back with a tweet saying talks over airline and small business relief were back on at 9:54 p.m. ET.

The conflicting messages come as more than 40,000 airline staff have been or will imminently be furloughed following the expiration of protections under the coronavirus aid package, or CARES Act, on Sept. 30. However, it remains unclear whether an extension can pass Congress in the 30 days before the Nov. 3 election — even with support from the White House and a bipartisan coalition of legislators.

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Airlines are asking for at least $25 billion in payroll assistance to keep staff on the payroll until next March. With the additional aid, they argued that they could weather what is shaping up to be a very tough winter until travelers started to return for the summer 2021 season. In addition, they expect more clarity around the availability of a COVID-19 vaccine that the industry hopes will allow travel to return to a semblance of normal.

After saying that “time already ran out” after Trump’s first tweet, trade group Airlines for America (A4A) president Nicholas Calio said he appreciated the show of support from the president following the later tweet.

“We remain hopeful that either the President or Congress will act swiftly to save these jobs,” Calio said. “We need action now.”

Related: More than 40,000 furloughs begin as ‘terrible Thursday’ arrives for airlines

Furloughs have hit the workforces at American Airlines and United Airlines the hardest with more than 19,000 and 13,000 people, respectively, let go. Alaska Airlines, Allegiant Air, Hawaiian Airlines and Spirit Airlines have also furloughed staff since the beginning of the month. In addition, regional carriers Envoy, GoJet Airlines and PSA Airlines had or intended to let go of staff.

The initial job losses may only be the first step. On Oct. 5, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly told staff that the carrier was seeking concessions from its labor unions to help it cut costs. Without concessions — or additional federal aid — the airline will have to furlough staff next year.

Flights to small cities are also in question without further aid. American is moving forward with suspending flights to 11 small communities — some of which have no other air service — across the U.S. on Oct. 7, confirmed spokesperson Stacy Day to TPG.

Related: Southwest Airlines seeks historic cuts from unions as it tries to avoid layoffs

The airline has extended the suspensions that affect airports like Dubuque, Iowa (DBQ), and New Haven, Connecticut (HVN), through the end of November instead of Nov. 3 as first announced, Day said.

Delta Air Lines and JetBlue Airways have indefinitely suspended flights to Newburgh Stewart (SWF) near New York and Worcester, Massachusetts (ORH). And the CEOs of both Southwest and United have said they may have to suspend some destinations if losses continue.

Airlines did receive one break this week. The Federal Aviation Administration extended a waiver allowing them to idle valuable flight slots at New York John F. Kennedy (JFK) and LaGuardia (LGA) airports, and Washington Reagan National (DCA) until next March.

Related: American, United say flights to small cities are at risk unless Congress extends payroll program

The story was updated to reflect the president’s later comment on airline relief.

Featured image by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

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