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With no aid in rescue package, transportation unions still see hope

Airline pilots and flight attendants are seeking negotiations with Senate Republicans on renewing the $25 billion payroll support program

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA International, speaks during a protest Wednesday by aviation workers outside the Capitol.  They urged Congress to extend the Payroll Support Program as part of a COVID-19 relief package.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA International, speaks during a protest Wednesday by aviation workers outside the Capitol. They urged Congress to extend the Payroll Support Program as part of a COVID-19 relief package. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s most recent take on pandemic relief may have given zero attention to the struggling transportation industry, but on Wednesday, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA International President Sara Nelson said she took his bill as a promising development all the same.

“This was McConnell’s entrance into the negotiations,” said Nelson, just after she and hundreds of flight attendants marched around the U.S. Capitol urging Congress to renew the $25 billion payroll support program passed as part of the roughly $2 trillion COVID-19 relief package in March. “And we have been saying we need McConnell to come to the table.”

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, offered a similar assessment, saying he would back airline aid and characterizing McConnell’s bill as an “icebreaker” aimed at getting the negotiations started.

“We have major airlines headquartered in Texas where hundreds of thousands of people are going to be laid off. Airlines are going to be some of the last ones to recover, so need the help,” he said.

The urgency is growing. On Wednesday, there were 21 days left until the Payroll Support Program expires, and Nelson said without an extension of that aid, nearly 100,000 airline workers may be subject to furloughs beginning Oct. 1.

Her union and the Air Line Pilots Association say the March package, which included $25 billion to keep passenger airline employees on their company payrolls as well as $4 billion for cargo airlines and $3 billion for contractors, was a much-needed lifeline at a time when the pandemic decimated the airline industry.

But the pandemic has not abated, and now they want the aid extended through March 31, 2021.

There’s ample evidence that rank-and-file lawmakers support extending the program. A coalition of 16 GOP senators and 223 House members have separately written letters urging an extension through March 31, 2021.

And White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow earlier this month told Bloomberg TV that the Trump administration plans to unveil additional aid for U.S. airlines within the next few weeks.

Still, the extension of the payroll program was in neither the $3.4 trillion House spending bill, which passed in May before fears about the program’s expiration ramped up, nor an earlier iteration of the Senate relief bill that stalled.

Airlines are not the only transportation-related industry dreading Oct. 1.

On Wednesday, William Flynn, the new president and CEO of Amtrak, said that without $4.9 billion in supplemental aid, the company will be forced to slash services and furlough 2,000 employees in October.

State highway departments are also warning that reductions in gas tax revenue and state fiscal crises mean they will face a $37 billion shortfall over the next five fiscal years.

And transit, too, faces a cliff: New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority warned in August that it is losing $200 million a week and, without aid, will have to make “draconian” cuts, including cutting up to 650 positions and reducing service by as much as 40 percent.

That McConnell’s latest bill included nothing for transportation was a departure from earlier bills. The House bill that passed May 15 would have provided $15 billion for state departments of transportation and $15.75 billion for transit. The Senate’s initial proposal would give $10 billion to airports.

Paul Skoutelas, president of the American Public Transportation Association, said he was disappointed that the Senate bill introduced Tuesday included nothing for transit.

“The bill presented ignores the essential employees of public transit as they continue to provide a lifeline getting workers to and from their jobs, seniors to medical appointments, and helping our communities rebuild together,” he said. “The situation that our nation’s public transit agencies face is dire.”

He said nationally, the industry needs a minimum investment of $32 billion to survive.

Larry Willis, president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, called McConnell’s bill “very unhelpful.”

“It didn’t provide any relief of any meaningful amount for anyone,” he said.

Nelson, who met with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer after the protest, said, “Every single day that goes on, the urgency of passing relief grows greater.”

“I do think that there is a lot of pressure around this election this fall,” she said. “And it is not just about a presidential election. And I think that is why we see McConnell at the table now.”

She said she worries the urgency isn’t felt among some lawmakers in part because of a false perception that the economy is not as bad as it is.

Aviation represents about 5 percent of the GDP, she said, and the collapse of the airline industry would damage an already struggling economy. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, aviation contributes $1.6 trillion in total economic activity and supports nearly 11 million jobs.

The economy, Nelson said, “is being propped up on a bubble on nothing. And the bubble is going to burst.”

She said she remains hopeful that a deal is still possible.

“As a union president, having negotiated all these contracts, you can get a deal very quickly when both parties decide they want one,” she said.

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