Tens of thousands of airline workers are being furloughed as CARES Act funding requirements have expired.
A last-minute funding extension — which workers and labor groups insist would have been a jobs program, rather than a bailout — never materialized.
Business Insider spoke with airline employees facing prolonged unemployment in a faltering economy, plus a loss of health coverage during a global pandemic. Despite the current stress and uncertainty, most say they’d go back to the airline life in a heartbeat.
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In five years as a flight attendant, Tiana Davenport has seen the world, ferrying passengers from San Francisco to Singapore, Paris, Frankfurt, and Tokyo, and has overcome unexpected life-threatening medical conditions. But this week Davenport finds herself grounded, along with tens of thousands of fellow airline workers.
US airlines began the process of furloughing 32,000 employees on Thursday, as protections dictated by the CARES Act expired, victims of the worst crisis in the industry’s history.
As travel demand fell as much as 97% early in the pandemic, Congress offered aid to airline workers through a $25 billion payroll support program (PSP) as part of the CARES Act. In exchange for the payroll aid and other loans, airlines agreed to not furlough or lay off workers through at least September 30. (Other conditions included prohibitions on stock buybacks and shareholder dividends, as well as caps on executive pay.)
That was in March, when airlines and lawmakers had reason to believe the pandemic would be largely under control by the fall, with air travel headed toward a recovery. But as outbreaks early in the summer showed that COVID-19 was anything but beaten, a modest uptick in demand flattened, stalling at roughly 40% of 2019 levels.
As their finances deteriorated, airlines started planning to lay off or furlough huge numbers of employees come October 1. They and employee unions have campaigned for an extension of the PSP, either on its own or as part of a larger stimulus package. Despite bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress, along with the White House, no agreement has been reached. And now, time has run out.
Although tens of thousands of airline workers nationwide have taken buyouts, early retirement packages, and unpaid leaves, involuntary furloughs kicked in on Thursday. Roughly 19,000 staff at American Airlines are losing their jobs, along with 13,000 at United and hundreds each at Alaska Airlines, Allegiant, Hawaiian, and Spirit. Under collective bargaining agreements, furloughed airline workers are given the option to return to their jobs before the carriers hire new replacements once demand improves.
Flight attendants make up the largest share of those furloughed, with gate agents baggage handlers, maintenance technicians, and others also affected. The men and women doing the flying have avoided the worst of the pain: Delta is set to furlough 1,900 pilots on November 1, while Southwest said it has raised enough cash to avoid furloughs until 2021.
A loss of health coverage, livelihoods, and a special way of life
As they lose their jobs, airline workers have been frustrated by what they see as unfair vitriol directed at airlines and bailouts, despite the effects the pandemic has had on regular workers. While airlines face ire over accepting what has been characterized as “bailout” money for a wealthy industry, unions and workers insist that the CARES Act funding was more akin to a jobs program.
“This is real people moving their stuff into their cars and trying to figure out how to survive,” Association of Flight Attendants-CWA president Sara Nelson said on Capitol Hill last week.
“We’re actual people, this is our life,” said Davenport, a union member who works for United. “I read some of the comments online, with how upset people are, about bailouts and stock buybacks. Just know that’s not us making those decisions, we’re real people who work with these airlines.”
Davenport, like many workers, is especially worried about losing her health insurance during a pandemic. In 2019, the 30-year-old suffered a spontaneous collapsed lung while working a flight from Frankfurt to San Francisco. During a surgery to prevent a reoccurrence, doctors discovered endometriosis developing in a way that could cause further breathing problems.
Davenport paid just $370 out-of-pocket for multiple hospitalizations and surgeries, she said, and currently receives a monthly injection at no cost that keeps her condition at bay. Now, she’s looking at up to $3,000 per month just for for that preventative treatment.
“I work out, I eat pretty healthy,” Davenport said. “And I have health issues now that I never thought I’d have.”
“It’s not just travel, it’s across all industries,” she said. “There are millions of people that are struggling, just have a little compassion.”
While cyclical downturns are not unusual for the airline industry, what makes this one especially painful is the fact that the larger economy and job market are so badly affected, too.
David Ishmael, another United flight attendant represented by the AFA, was planning on eventually pursuing a pilots license, ideally through United’s in-house flight training program. But he doesn’t expect to be able to afford it while furloughed — especially if he can’t find another job with comparable pay.
“Regardless of qualifications, the job market overall is very suppressed,” he said. “It’s still very difficult to find other employment. People just aren’t hiring.”
Many workers plan to tread water as the pandemic drags on, but hope to return to the skies the second the pandemic is over.
“I love this job, I don’t know what else there is to say,” said an American Airlines flight attendant, who plans to apply for unemployment and try to pick up shifts with Uber and DoorDash, as well as continue regular work with the Air Force Reserve. “I don’t want to do anything else.”
“I’m going to finish the degree I started before I left for this job,” said another furloughed American Airlines employee, who said she plans to pursue a master’s once she finishes her remaining few college credits. “I’ll be ready whenever we are called back. Even though we are experiencing tough times, I still love what I do. I could never be as happy working a 9-5 as I am in the skies.”
Being part of an airline in any capacity is unlike anything industry, say the hundreds of thousands who work for the nation’s air carriers. Even workers who are not part of flight crews — baggage handlers, corporate employees, and the like — tend to have generous free (or cheap) travel benefits. For flight attendants and pilots, especially, having the chance to take advantage of flexible scheduling and fun layovers beats any alternative.
“People will say ‘oh, but what’s the point, you’re only in that country for 24 hours.’ And I’ll say yeah, but it’s not going to be the last time,” Davenport said about how she tries to schedule layovers. “I just love it.”
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