After wrangling over a stimulus packagefor months that includes direct payments to Americans and increased relief for small businesses, the air travel industry was able to secure another $15 billion in aid to airlines that would bring back workers, guarantee pay and delay talk of payroll cutbacks until at least the end of March.
The bill is still waiting on a final vote and signature from President Donald Trump, but Senate key Democrat and Republican leaders in both chambers endorsed the compromise.
U.S. airlines are in line for billions of dollars in direct grants to help cover worker costs, similar to the program passed in March that not only prevented layoffs but also stopped companies from giving dividends, buying back shares and giving executive raises.
Airlines have been begging for an extension of the previous stimulus program since this summer, when it was clear that the COVID-19 pandemic was far worse than previously imagined and that the travel industry wouldn’t recover anytime soon.
Southwest Airlines has threatened to furloughmore than 7,200 workers next fall after failing to come to an agreement on 10% wage cuts with workers.
Alaska and Spirit airlines have also furloughed workers who would likely be brought back in the coming weeks.
Despite efforts to cut flights, reduce costs and find new efficiencies, airlines are facing multibillion-dollar losses for the third straight quarter. Transportation Security Administration data shows that passenger traffic is still down more than 60% despite the industry’s efforts to reassure travelers by requiring face masks on flights and in airports.
Just over 1 million passengers passed through TSA checkpoints at U.S. airports on Friday and Saturday, some of the busiest days since the beginning of the pandemic. But that compares with more than 2.5 million passengers on comparable days a year ago.
Most of the big-spending business travelers have abandoned air travel during the pandemic. And even leisure passengers, who are more price-conscious, are fickle about flying with many of the country’s tourism hot spots closed. Many popular tourist spots, including Hawaii and New York, have tight restrictions on out-of-state travelers that have essentially killed the tourism industry in those regions.
This new round of stimulus doesn’t fix any of those problems caused by the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 300,000 people in the U.S. But it does buy airlines time while the country waits for a handful of COVID-19 vaccines to be widely distributed to the public, which likely won’t happen until the second half of 2021, according to government health officials.