US Airlines has secured $ 39 billion in payroll support. They deserved every penny.
Congress provided $ 40 billion to pay the salaries of tens of thousands of passenger airline employees during the pandemic. It seems like a good investment, which has both helped the US economy and made flights available this summer.
For the airline workforce, the programs known as PSP (for Payroll Support Programs) have been a historic achievement. The unions helped draft the legislation and then advocated for it. Chief flight attendant Sara Nelson became a television staple, even as she and others continued the less visible work of engaging Congress.
But most airlines have not been perfectly successful, failing to anticipate the surge in demand this summer. Congress has not been perfectly successful either, allowing a gap between two tranches of airline support. The gap between late summer and early fall encouraged layoffs. Combined with unfavorable summer weather, this resulted in delays, cancellations and long wait times for calls for reservations.
Delta CEO Ed Bastian said on Wednesday, during the carrier’s earnings call in July, that reservations called “volumes are beyond anything we’ve ever seen.” American on Thursday canceled the extended voluntary leave of 3,300 flight attendants.
On Friday, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Chair of the Senate committee that oversees the airline industry, wrote letters to six airline CEOs asking them why they were understaffed despite the infusion of funds. She wrote to CEOs of Allegiant, American, Delta, JetBlue, Republic and Southwest: United was a notable exclusion.
“This reported labor shortage goes against the purpose and spirit of the PSP, which was to enable airlines to withstand the pandemic and keep employees on the payroll so that industry is able to capture a rebound in demand, ”Cantwell wrote. Although just an investigation, it was a pointed question.
Today, airline union leaders recall that the PSP has been an unprecedented success. The program “has kept 90% of our employed members with a paycheck, health care and ongoing contributions to their pension plans,” said Sito Pantoja, general vice president of the International Association of Machinists who has headed the union’s transport division for nine years.
“It also allowed the airlines to prepare as soon as possible,” Pantoja said. “Imagine, if all these people had been put on leave, where would the airlines be now?
“All you have to do is take a picture of what the airlines looked like a year ago and what they look like now. All these airports, all these businesses, all these little stores are thriving, ”Pantoja said. “And everyone knows it, no matter how the airlines operate, that’s the way the economy works.”
The IAM Transport Division and the Transport Workers Union are the largest unions representing airline workers. Their legislative teams worked closely with lawmakers: Pantoja met with both US President Robert Isom and United CEO Scott Kirby.
Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, which has 50,000 members, said that although the PSP was a resounding success, “what has not worked is the ability of Congress to keep it in place. “. Congress allocated $ 25 billion to commercial airline employees in March, then another $ 14 billion in a second allocation in December.
In the interval between benefits, some airlines have decided to lay off or buy back workers. “They couldn’t afford to keep payroll in place,” Nelson said.
“We warned Congress that if they didn’t renew it last October, we wouldn’t be in our jobs,” Nelson said. “One of the key elements of the payroll support program is the knowledge that people certified with credentials and authorization cannot just show up for work the next day. You have to keep them qualified. Otherwise, it takes time to get them back to work.
“What you are seeing now is a hangover from the funding expiration in Congress,” Nelson said. “But it’s also confirmation that the PSP is working. If people are unhappy with the 1-2% drop in thefts, imagine what it would have been like without funding. “
John Samuelsen, president of the Transport Workers Union, denounced “the idea that money did not do what it was supposed to do”. In the funding gap, Southwest sent out warning layoffs, although it didn’t have to lay off workers, while American and United laid people off. American and United later recalled the workers and provided retroactive pay.
Bus and subway workers, including 46,000 TWU members in New York City, also continued to work. “When it comes to the benefits of PSP, tens of thousands of workers on the transit side have never been made redundant because of it,” Samuelsen said. “Imagine how bad the economy would be if the entire transportation industry had just imploded. “
Why hasn’t United CEO Scott Kirby heard from Cantwell?
Todd Insler, President of the United Section of the Air Line Pilots Association, said, “PSP has been a huge success for the US economy and for workers, especially at United, where our operational performance helps millions of our people. passengers to resume their journeys before the pandemic. levels.”
Insler said the program worked best at United because a one-time deal with the pilots prevented layoffs. This “allowed us to keep all types of United aircraft in the air throughout the pandemic, saved thousands of jobs and kept our pilots up to date,” Insler said. “United pilots (could) get back on the air quickly to meet the demand and not have the problems that others are experiencing.”
In contrast, American and Southwest performed more of their regular schedules and were trapped by inclement weather and crew shortages.
“The operational failures that we see are not being brought to the door of PSP, but to the feet of managements who have not planned accordingly,” said Dennis Tajer, spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents 15 000 American pilots. During the funding lull, American laid off 1,600 pilots. “We told management it was a risky plan,” Tajer said. “It takes several months to train a standby pilot. ”
Yet “the PSP has been a huge success,” he said. “Without it, the airline industry would have collapsed. You will read about airlines that sell assets.