Airline workers are essential. Will Congress keep them flying?

Airline workers are essential. Will Congress keep them flying?
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It is often said in aviation circles that an airline is made up of people’s lives. This has been on my mind through these difficult months, as airlines and policymakers have fought to protect the livelihoods of airline workers and preserve the connections they make for travelers. 

Recently, airline cabins and social media have resonated with further evidence of this simple truth, as workers issued tearful farewells, affirming their dedication to their airline families and customers through the very last flight. 

Last week, roughly 50,000 of these individuals were furloughed when the Payroll Support Program (PSP), a pass-through airline employee support program established by the CARES Act, expired amidst faltering negotiations on a broader relief package. Now airlines, experiencing staggering losses and with more workers than work, must undertake vast contraction in their networks to survive the staggering demand shock wrought by the ongoing pandemic. 

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Unfortunately, last week’s wave of contraction will likely precede another, given air service requirements in the CARES Act have expired just in time for a business travel season without business travelers. While this affects all communities, history shows when the airline industry contracts, small communities are the hardest hit. With fewer passengers traveling and therefore lower margins to sustain viable air service, even small fluctuations in demand carry an outsized impact on smaller markets. While the present economic crisis is magnitudes greater than the last economic downturn, it offers a clue to what comes next. A DOT Small Community Air Service Working Group reported in 2017 that the last downturn and recovery saw departures to small airports decreased at a rate five times worse than that of larger airports. 

While the pandemic has persisted much longer than anticipated when the Cares Act was crafted, it will not last forever. Our nation can and will recover, but the lasting effects of a wholesale airline industry contraction will not easily or even certainly be reversed in time for the return of demand. Recalled airline workers must be retrained, which takes time. Pilots, in particular, must regain currency in a flight simulator to requalify. In a post-pandemic hiring period, the finite resource of simulator time would quickly become overwhelmed and resulting return-to-work training bottlenecks would delay a restart. This practically assures many small communities will stay dark long after their demand returns. Moreover, this assumes an ideal scenario where all workers return to the industry — they often don’t. Before the pandemic, half of the nation’s pilots faced mandatory government retirement within 15 years. Now over 45,000 aviation workers, including many pilots, have taken early exits. A returning pilot shortage in five years or less is a near certainty, especially if future aviators take a dim view of today’s furloughs and turn away from the profession altogether. 

For months, the airline industry and our labor partners have called for a COVID-19 relief package that would address the dire economic consequences facing countless Americans, including many in the broader transportation sector. With the ink drying on last weeks’ furloughs, airline workers cannot wait any longer. The window to reverse course on recent and forthcoming airline furloughs is closing, but has not been sealed shut. The airline industry helps drive a whopping $1.7 trillion in economic activity, including $134 billion driven by regional airline service to the nation’s smallest airports. Benefits extending beyond airlines will surely follow renewed airline worker support, including averting economic harm associated with mass furloughs, strain on unemployment rolls and severed connections to smaller communities who will need their air service to rebuild their economies. Despite these facts, I am not urging passage of standalone airline worker relief because I believe our industry deserves to go first, but because there is resounding bipartisan, bicameral support for protecting airline jobs and their associated benefits for our nation’s economy before it is too late. Congress must take this opportunity as it presents. 

Last week, airline executives across the country made some of the most harrowing decisions faced by company stewards — letting go of tens of thousands of workers in order to preserve sustainability for an even larger group of employees on the other side of this pandemic. Other airlines have managed to avert or delay furloughs by taking deep cuts to the operation. Employees at all organizational levels have taken voluntary pay cuts and made other sacrifices to keep more coworkers on the job. We need to see the same dedication, courage and sense of purpose from our lawmakers. 

I believe in the importance of a broader deal, and humbly ask policymakers to act while they can to keep aviation workers on the job, so they can bring Congress back to Washington to finish their important work. 

Faye Malarkey Black is the president & CEO of The Regional Airline Association (RAA). In the United States, regional airlines operate 41 percent of scheduled passenger flights and provide the only source of scheduled air service to 66 percent of the nation’s airports.