With Transportation Industry In Trouble, Workers Wait For Federal Aid Package

Mar 24, 2020
Originally published on March 24, 2020 4:23 pm

This is a surreal time to be going to work inside of an airport.

"This is shocking, the speed in which this has completely changed our lives," says Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, the union representing 50,000 flight attendants at 20 different airlines.

"When we get to the plane, the first thing we're checking is, do we have the mask and gloves? Do we have hand sanitzer? Do we have the sani-wipes to be able to wipe things down?"

Nelson says many flight attendants are already taking pay cuts because they're working fewer flights and now they face the prospect of layoffs or lengthy furloughs.

"And then we're walking through empty airports and wondering, how long this can last?" she says.

The answer from the airlines is not long: a couple of months or maybe even just weeks before the industry is crippled and tens of thousands of workers may be laid off or furloughed. The industry is being crushed by a huge drop in travel. Airports and airplanes are nearly empty, with some flights carrying fewer than a dozen passengers and many others canceled because hardly anyone is flying. The TSA only screened about 331,000 people nationwide Monday, compared to more than 2.4 million on the same day last year, a drop of 86 percent.

"What has happened is devastating, it's just devastating," says Nick Calio, president and CEO the industry lobbying group Airlines for America. "This is a today problem, not a tomorrow problem," he adds.

The airlines employ 750,000 people in the U.S., Calio says, and beyond that, he says "there are another 10 million jobs created because of those people working for our airlines."

"The airline industry drives our economy in terms of carrying passengers, business travelers and shipping packages," Calio says. "It's over five percent of the gross domestic product."

And then there are the people who work at airports, not directly for the airlines, but for contractors and vendors to the airlines and airports, many of whom are already laid off.

Luerica Fiffee, a passenger service agent at New York's JFK airport, says she was just laid off a few days ago. "I have seven kids to take care of and no one is hiring at the moment," she says. "How will I manage?"

Benjamin Chavez, a baggage handler in the international terminal at Chicago's O'Hare airport hasn't been laid off yet, but fears he could lose his $14 an hour job any day now.

"It's been super slow at the airport lately," he says. "There's been less flights, less people I see now. ... It's scary in so many ways. Scary financial and scary, like, whoa, where have all the people gone? You're used to seeing like a busy airport but now there's very few people around. It's a scary sight, really."

Many in Congress agree the airlines and workers need federal help, but the sticking point is, what form that assistance takes, and what strings are attached.

Unions don't want a repeat of previous bailouts. After Sept. 11, airlines got cash assistance but several airlines still filed for bankruptcy and were able to cut jobs, wages and pensions. After the great recession of 2007-2009, when passengers and profits returned, airlines pumped much of the extra cash into executive bonuses and buying back stock to boost shareholder value instead of building up their reserves for a rainy day.

"Any bailout for the airline industry has got to focus on the workers, not the executives," says Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA).

Congressional leaders are still ironing out the details, but it appears the broad coronavirus economic recovery bill will include restrictions on stock buybacks and bonuses, which the airlines have now agreed to.

Airlines had initially wanted half of the $50 billion in aid to be in the form of direct cash grants. But the initial plan proposed by Senate Republicans would give airlines $50 billion, but all of it in loans that would have to be paid back.

A House Democratic counter proposal increases overall aid to more than $60 billion and includes direct cash grants to airlines and contractors, but those payments would have to subsidize workers, keeping them on the payroll, to prevent layoffs and furloughs.

It's not just the airlines and their workers seeking federal assistance, many other travel and transportation industries have their hands out. Airports and airport vendors are losing revenue; they could get $10 billion in federal aid under the House Democrats' plan. Cruiselines, hotels and resorts are shutting down or scaling back, while laying off workers. They stand to get federal support, too. Amtrak has lost tens of thousands of riders and may get $1 billion in the deal.

And then there's big city public transit agencies.

"Chicago, LA, New York, Philadelphia, you can name 'em; they're seeing a dramatic drop in ridership," says Stephen Schlickman, a transportation consultant and the former executive director of Chicago's Regional Transportation Authority. He says ridership is down 50 to 90 percent in some cities, with the Seattle and New York City transit systems especially hard hit because of the COVID-19 outbreaks in those cities, as many would-be riders stay home from work and some don't ride to avoid being too close to other people.

"Trying to stand six feet away from a person on a train or a bus is almost impossible," Schlickman says, referring to social distancing recommendations.

As ridership plummets, so too does fare revenue. And Schlickman says with bars, restaurants and shops closing down, there's a huge drop off in sales tax revenue, too. "Sales tax is probably the largest source of tax revenue that transit systems rely on across the country," he says.

Congress and the White House appear to have an agreement on providing transit agencies at least $20 billion in aid. Whether it'll be enough depends on how long riders continue to work from home.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Airlines are saying they'll probably have to lay off tens of thousands of people if Congress doesn't pass an economic relief package soon. There are also reports that all passenger flights across the United States could temporarily shut down. Those are just reports for the moment. The transportation industry is being crushed, and as NPR's David Schaper reports, all of them desperately want a piece of the federal bailout.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: This is a surreal time to be working inside of an airport.

SARA NELSON: This is shocking, the speed at which this has completely changed our lives.

SCHAPER: Sara Nelson heads the Association of Flight Attendants, the union representing 50,000 flight attendants at 20 different airlines.

NELSON: When we get to the plane, the first thing we're checking is do we have the masks and gloves? Do we have the hand sanitizer? Do we have the Sani wipes to be able to wipe things down?

SCHAPER: Nelson says many flight attendants already are taking pay cuts because they're working fewer flights, and now they're facing possible layoffs or furloughs.

NELSON: This is our life now. We're thinking about that. And then we're walking through empty airports and wondering how long this can last.

SCHAPER: The airlines say not long before the industry is crippled. Many in Congress agree that airlines need federal help, but the sticking point is what form and what strings are attached. Unions don't want a repeat of previous bailouts, where Congress helped airlines but several still filed for bankruptcy and cut jobs, wages and pensions. After the recession, when passengers and profits returned, airlines pumped the extra cash into executive bonuses and buying back stock to boost shareholder value instead of building up reserves.

California Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee.

BARBARA LEE: Any bailout for the airline industry has got to focus on the workers, not the executives.

SCHAPER: President Trump agrees that a bailout bill should include restrictions on stock buybacks and bonuses. Airlines now agree but say they want half of the $50 billion in aid to be direct cash grants. Republicans largely want to restrict the aid to loans. Some Democrats propose some direct cash payments if used strictly to pay workers. But it's still not clear what, if anything, would go to baggage handlers, wheelchair attendants and others who work for contractors at the nation's airports.

LUERICA FIFFEE: The airline just laid me off a few days ago.

SCHAPER: Luerica Fiffee is a passenger service agent at New York's JFK Airport.

FIFFEE: I have seven kids to take care of, and no one is hiring at the moment. How am I going to manage?

SCHAPER: Some in Congress are pushing for increased support and health care for these hourly contract workers, and lots of other industries have their hands out for the government money. Cruise lines, hotels and resorts are shutting down and laying off workers. Amtrak has lost riders and so, too, have public transit systems. Steven Schlickman is a transportation consultant and the former head of Chicago's Regional Transportation Authority. He says with ridership down 50% to 90% in many cities, their revenue has plummeted, and with most bars, restaurants and shops closing down, there's a huge drop-off in sales tax revenue.

STEVEN SCHLICKMAN: And sales tax is actually probably the largest tax revenue source that transit systems rely on across the country.

SCHAPER: Congress and the White House agree to give transit agencies $20 billion in aid. Whether that's enough depends on how long people continue to stay at home.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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