Airlines defend delays, cancellations amid scrutiny from Congress

An American Airlines Airbus A-319 makes a landing at National Airport in Arlington, Va.
Greg Nash

The top trade group representing U.S. airlines defended this year’s flight delays and cancellations that prompted questions from lawmakers about how carriers spent $54 billion in federal pandemic aid.

In a letter to lawmakers, Airlines for America President Nicholas Calio said Tuesday that airlines spent Congress’ Payroll Support Program funds (PSP) exactly as they were intended — to keep workers employed — and that the government aid prevented the industry from collapsing when COVID-19 left airports nearly empty.  

“Without PSP, U.S. airlines would have been forced to implement massive layoffs, dramatically reduce service and cancel fleet orders,” Calio wrote.

“If all of those employees had been furloughed, airlines would not have been able to meet the unprecedented demand surge that occurred this summer and has continued into this fall,” he added.

The airline group, which represents American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and other major U.S. carriers, wrote the letter in response to a Dec. 1 inquiry from House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and the committee’s ranking member, Sam Graves (R-Mo.). 

The lawmakers questioned why some airlines were forced to cancel hundreds of flights and delay thousands more during busy travel periods this year, and why they struggled with worker shortages despite receiving billions in government aid to keep workers on the payroll.

Calio said that federal funding covered 77 percent of airlines’ payroll costs, effectively saving 735,800 jobs, but that carriers were still forced to make cuts.

“Unfortunately, the depth and duration of the airlines’ financial crisis combined with the temporary lapse in PSP funding in late 2020 forced several airlines to reduce payroll through a combination of layoffs during that two-month period as well as voluntary leaves of absence, early retirements and other forms of separation,” Calio wrote.

Calio added that while staff shortages were a major contributor to flight disruptions, extreme weather, fuel shortages and supply chain issues also played a role. 

Southwest Airlines and American Airlines experienced the most flight disruptions, shutting down thousands of flights over the Halloween weekend and struggling to accommodate an uptick in travelers this summer. Airlines finally rebounded over the Thanksgiving holiday, experiencing relatively few issues during the busiest travel weekend of the pandemic.

“Our positive performance throughout November—including an exceptionally busy Thanksgiving holiday period—and in the first several days of December is further proof that we are committed to using every tool at our disposal to provide a safe and smooth experience to the traveling public,” Calio wrote.

Lawmakers are expected to continue probing airlines’ use of federal funds. Senate Commerce Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) plans to hold a hearing on the topic this month.

Tags Airline industry Airlines airlines for america American Airlines COVID-19 Maria Cantwell Pandemic Peter DeFazio Relief Sam Graves southwest airlines

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