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    Unions push airlines to promise they’ll avoid stock buybacks

    DALLAS (AP) – Labour unions are pressuring United States (US) airlines not to buy back their own stock but instead spend the money on hiring more workers and fixing problems that caused widespread flight delays and cancellations this summer.

    The unions said on Thursday that the four largest US airlines spent more than USD39 billion on stock buybacks from 2014 through 2019 rather than making investments to help employees and passengers.

    The airlines are currently barred from buying back their own shares as a condition of USD54 billion in federal pandemic aid, but that prohibition ends after September 30.

    Union officials worry that buybacks will come back now that most US airlines have returned to profitability after huge losses in 2020 and 2021.

    The unions, which represent pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, baggage handlers and other workers, launched a campaign and petition drive that portrays buyouts as a giveaway to Wall Street and a tool for airline executives to boost their own stock-based compensation.

    “We paused the greed in aviation for a little while,” said Association of Flight Attendants President Sara Nelson.

    She blamed “greed that ran rampant before COVID-19” with leaving airlines understaffed.

    Passengers at the John F Kennedy International Airport. PHOTO: AP

    The unions asked airlines to pledge to forgo buybacks until airlines fix their “operational meltdowns” and reach new labour contracts – unions are seeking substantial wage increases.

    A union representative said on Thursday that none of the airlines immediately agreed to the pledge.

    American Airlines Chief Financial Officer Derek Kerr said in a recent interview that buybacks are not on the table.

    “There is no plan to do any share repurchases. All of our excess liquidity will go to pay off debt,” Kerr said. A spokesman said on Thursday that is still American’s position.

    United Airlines said that it is not currently seeking buybacks. “Our highest financial priorities right now are restoring our balance sheet and investing in our employees and customers,” a spokeswoman said.

    Asked about share repurchases last month, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian did not answer directly because of the prohibition, but he said the airline has a responsibility to customers, employees, “and importantly to our owners”.

    A Delta spokesman said on Thursday that the company has raised base pay four per cent and made profit-sharing payments to employees.

    A Southwest Airlines spokesman said only that the airline has not announced any plans for buybacks.

    Airlines could be tempted to repurchase stock because the shares might appear cheap.

    The Arca index of airline stocks is down 21 per cent this year and 41 per cent since the start of 2020. Most US airlines reported second-quarter profits, however, and revenue is surging on strong ticket sales.

    Stock buybacks are a favourite target of unions and Democratic lawmakers, who often see them as widening inequality between workers and wealthier investors. The climate, health care and tax bill that President Joe Biden signed this week includes a new one-per-cent excise tax on them beginning next year. Corporations view buybacks as a way to reward shareholders by reducing the number of shares and making the remaining ones more valuable. Investors often prefer them over dividends, which are treated as ordinary income and taxed at up to 37 per cent. If buybacks boost a stock’s value, investors who hold the shares long enough pay a lower capital-gains tax on the profit when they sell – no more than 20 per cent.

    “There is nothing inherently wrong with a buyback. It just gives shareholders a return on their investment,” said University of Delaware’s founding director of a corporate-governance centre Charles Elson.

    Elson, however, said there are pitfalls. Companies might pay too much for the stock, wasting money. And executives with stock options benefit from buybacks but not from dividends, a problem that he said can be fixed by giving the executives restricted stock units instead of options.

    Boston University management professor Charles Tharp, who advises corporate boards on compensation, said that raising employee pay and buying back stock are separate decisions.

    When companies approve buybacks, “it does look like I’m choosing to serve shareholders instead of employees”, he said, “but that assumes you would give the raise to employees if you didn’t buy back shares, which probably isn’t the case”.

    Tharp said if companies believe they need to raise pay to be competitive, they will make that decision regardless of whether they buy back shares.

    In 2020, the labour unions provided key support for giving taxpayer money to the airlines, which were warning they faced disaster from a plunge in travel during the early days of the pandemic. Union officials and Democratic lawmakers insisted that the aid be tied to a ban on buybacks and limits on executive compensation.

    Airlines were barred from furloughing employees during the pandemic, but they were allowed to pay incentives that led tens of thousands of workers to quit. The airlines were understaffed when air travel bounced back this spring and summer, contributing to about 45,000 cancelled flights and 472,000 delays since June 1.

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