US Airlines received $ 39 billion in wage support. They deserved every penny.

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Congress provided $ 39 billion to pay the salaries of tens of thousands of passenger airline employees during the pandemic. It looks like a good investment that both helped the U.S. economy and ensured aircraft availability this summer.

For airline work, the programs known as the PSP represented a historic achievement. Trade unions helped write the legislation and then advocated for it. Air traffic controller Sara Nelson became a television fixture even as she and others pursued the less visible work of engaging Congress.

But most airlines did not perform perfectly and failed to anticipate demand this summer. Congress also did not fare perfectly, allowing for a gap between two parts of aviation support. Late summer / early fall encouraged layoffs. Combined with unfavorable summer weather, these led to delays, cancellations and long waiting times for calls for reservations.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian said Wednesday in connection with the airline’s earnings call in July that reservations call “volumes are greater than anything we’ve ever seen.” On Thursday, American canceled extended volunteer departures for 3,300 flight attendants.

On Friday, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Chair of the Senate committee overseeing the aviation industry, wrote letters to six airlines, CEOS, asking why they are short of staff despite the cash infusion. She wrote to CEOs of Allegiant, American, Delta, JetBlue, Republic and Southwest: United was a remarkable exclusion.

“This reported labor shortage is contrary to the objective and spirit of the PSP, which was to enable airlines to endure the pandemic and keep employees on the payroll so that the industry was able to catch a rebound in demand,” Cantwell wrote. While it was only a query, it was a tip.

Now, airline executives are reminded that the PSP was an unprecedented success. The program “kept 90% of our members busy with a paycheck, health care and ongoing contributions to their retirement plans,” said Sito Pantoja, an international association of machinists general vice president who headed the association’s transportation department for nine years.

“It also allowed the airlines to gear up as quickly as possible,” Pantoja said. “Imagine if all these people had been affected, 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 companies, all these small shops thrive, ”said Pantoja. “And everyone knows how airlines go, that’s how the economy goes.”

IAM’s Transportation Department and Transport Workers Union are the largest unions representing aviation workers. Their legislative staffs worked closely with lawmakers: Pantoja met with both U.S. President Robert Isom and United CEO Scott Kirby.

Nelson, president of the 50,000-member Association of Flight Attendees, said that while the PSP was an overwhelming success, “what did not work was Congress’ ability to keep it in place.” Congress allocated $ 25 billion to commercial aviation workers in March and then another $ 14 billion in another allocation in December.

In the gap between the allocations, some airlines moved to lay off or buy workers. “They could not afford to keep the payroll in place,” Nelson said.

“We warned Congress that if they did not renew it last October, we would not be in our jobs,” Nelson said. “One of the key elements of the payroll program is knowledge that people who are certified with credentials and credentials can not 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 see now is hangovers from the lapse of funding in Congress,” Nelson said. “But it is also a confirmation that PSP works. If people are upset that 1% to 2% is being rolled down in flights, imagine what it would have been like without funding. ”

John Samuelsen, president of the Transport Workers Union, rejected “the notion that money did not do what it was supposed to do.” In the funding gap, Southwest sent warnings of layoffs, though it did not need to lay off workers, while the U.S. and United fired people. Later, American and united workers called back and provided retroactive wages.

Bus and subway workers, including 46,000 TWU members in New York, also continued to work. “In terms of the benefits of the PSP, tens of thousands of workers on the public transport side were never fired because of it,” said Samuelsen. “Imagine how bad the economy would be if the entire transportation industry had just been imploded.”

Why did United’s CEO Scott Kirby not hear from Cantwell?

Todd Insler, President of the United Chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association, said: “The PSP was hugely successful for the US economy and for workers, especially at United, where our operational performance helps millions of our passengers return to pre-pandemic travel levels. ”

Insler said the program worked best at United because a unique deal with pilots prevented layoffs. It “enabled us to keep all United aircraft types flying through the pandemic, saved thousands of jobs and kept our pilots up to date,” Insler said. “United pilots (could) return to flying fast to match demand and not have the problems others are experiencing.”

In contrast, the American and Southwest flew a larger share of their fixed schedules and were caught by adverse weather and lack of crew.

“The operational failures we see are not at the door of the PSP, but at the feet of executives who did not plan accordingly,” said Dennis Tajer, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents 15,000 U.S. pilots. During funding shutdowns, 1,600 pilots were laid off. “We told management it was a risky plan,” Tajer said. “It takes many months to train a pilot again.”

Still, “PSP was an over-the-top success,” he said. “Without it, the aviation industry would have collapsed. You read about airlines selling assets. ”

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