US airlines warn of ‘draconian’ steps if Congress fails to help

WASHINGTON (AFP) – The chief executives of the largest US airline companies asked Congress on Saturday for urgent help avoiding widespread layoffs among the industry’s 750,000 employees.

“Unless worker payroll protection grants are passed immediately, many of us will be forced to take draconian measures such as furloughs,” the CEOs said in a letter to leaders of both houses of Congress distributed by the Airlines for America trade group.

“The breadth and immediacy of the need to act cannot be overstated,” it said. “It is urgent and unprecedented.”

Airlines for America represents American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines as well as shippers FedEx and UPS.

“On behalf of 750,000 airline professionals and our nation’s airlines, we respectfully request Congress to continue to move expeditiously to pass a bipartisan proposal that includes a combination of worker payroll protection grants, loans, loan guarantees and tax measures. Time is running out.”

An American Airlines fleet services employee loads a cargo pallet on a 777-300 at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in Dallas, Texas. PHOTO: AFP

The signatories appeared to be trying, in part, to counter recent negative publicity over reports that in recent years the airlines, while taking in billions in profits, used stock buybacks and other measures to reward shareholders rather than putting money into workers’ salaries or a rainy-day fund.

US President Donald Trump seemed to allude to those reports during Saturday’s White House briefing on the coronavirus, saying of plans to help US companies, “I want money to be used for workers and keeping businesses open, not buybacks.

“I am strongly recommending a buyback exclusion. You cannot buy back your stock. You can’t take a billion dollars of the money and buy back your stock.”

The letter said the sector had already taken steps to protect itself from the catastrophic effects of the coronavirus – which the International Air Transport Association estimates could wipe USD30 billion in revenues from the books of global airlines.

Over the past decade, the letter said, the industry had reinvested 73 per cent of its operational earnings “in our personnel and our products.”