Nightmare at 30,000 feet: Airline workers face layoffs with no Heroes Act
In this May 24, 2020, file photo, a Southwest Airlines flight attendant prepares a plane bound for Orlando, Fla. for takeoff at Kansas City International airport in Kansas City, Mo. About 40,000 workers in the airline industry are facing layoffs after Congress let economic supports expire on Oct. 1. | Charlie Riedel / AP

It’s a nightmare at high altitude for workers in the airline industry. This time though, it’s not a gremlin ripping out bits and pieces of electrical wiring like it in the classic Twilight Zone episode. Instead, it’s greedy, heartless politicians ripping out essential economic protections for frontline workers as the coronavirus pandemic grounds their livelihoods and continues to decimate the U.S. economy.

With the U.S. House, Senate Republicans, and the White House unable to reach an agreement over a stimulus package aimed at providing economic relief for workers—the Heroes Act (HR6800)—American and United Airlines announced last week they would begin to furlough 32,000 workers after previous economic supports expired on Oct. 1.

“My life is in boxes. My health care is gone. My eyes are on the unemployment screen, and Rand Paul is standing in the way of my future,” said flight attendant Alyssa Snapp, referring to the Republican Kentucky Senator, who’s among those refusing to approve more economic relief.

The move by two of the nation’s four biggest airlines signals the first, and largest, part of involuntary job cuts that are expected in the coming days.

Early on during the coronavirus pandemic, travel demand fell as much as 97%. With a misplaced belief that the pandemic would be over by the summer months, Congress offered aid to airline workers though a $25 billion payroll support program as part of the CARES Act. A condition of this plan was that airlines were not to lay off workers through at least Sept. 30.

Workers, their unions, and airlines are currently lobbying for money to pay workers for at least six more months, through next March. Their request is linked to a larger pandemic relief measure currently stalled at the congressional negotiation table.

Besides American and United, smaller airlines have sent out layoff notices to several thousand workers as well.

Delta and Southwest, which had stronger financials when the pandemic hit, have offloaded thousands of jobs through voluntary early retirement, but claim they don’t plan to lay off workers in the immediate future.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, upon hearing that layoffs would move forward, said: “It shouldn’t be this hard to do the right thing.”

“On Oct. 1, tens of thousands of essential aviation workers will wake up without a job or healthcare, and tens of thousands more will be without a paycheck. They don’t know how they will pay rent, feed their families, or cover the cost of their prescriptions or medical care. It did not have to be this way.”

That Oct. 1 deadline came and went without action from the GOP or the White House.

Nelson excoriated House and Senate Republicans by reminding them that flight attendants had been on the frontlines of the coronavirus crisis since the earliest days. “We have done our part to keep our economy and our country running though the pandemic,” she said.

Overall, in the airline industry, flight attendants have taken the hardest hit, with gate agents baggage handlers, maintenance techs, and others similarly affected. Pilots at United Airlines have avoided over 3,000 layoffs after their union reached a work-share agreement with the airline—reduced duty hours and monthly pay.

William Shatner starred in Nightmare At 20,000 Feet, a 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone. Today, the nightmare facing airline workers is not a gremlin on the wing, but rather the expiration of economic aid that had kept their jobs alive. | Wikimedia Commons

“We’ve worked for months on creative solutions to mitigate massive pilot layoffs,” said Captain Todd Insler, who leads the United union at the Air Line Pilots Association. “With this agreement now solidified, we will turn our focus back to Congress to secure a much-needed CARES Act extension to keep our industry solvent until we recover from this pandemic.”

On Oct. 1, House Democrats pushed forward a revised, smaller version of the Heroes Act but whether or not the Senate will agree to it is uncertain, making this perhaps the last-ditch effort to provide relief before Election Day.

Though the House passed the measure, action from the Senate is still in limbo. For the Trump administration’s part, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin says he continues to negotiate the House and Senate.

Flight attendants, meanwhile, are desperately reaching for whatever economic life vest they can get.

“We need relief for the whole country. While Congress and the administration continue to negotiate a broader deal, aviation workers are out of time. Chairman DeFazio is fighting for airline workers and we need the bipartisan agreement across Washington,” said Nelson.

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Al Neal
Al Neal

Award winning journalist Al Neal is PW associate editor for labor and politics. He is also the chief photographer for People's World. He is a member of the Chicago News Guild, Society of Professional Journalists, Professional Photographers of America, National Sports Media Association, and The Ernest Brooks Foundation.