Airlines, unions pin hopes for more payroll cash on politics

Full Screen
1 / 3

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

FILE - In this July 22, 2020 photo, a ticketing agent for Delta Airlines hands a boarding pass to a passenger as he checks in for a flight in the main terminal of Denver International Airport in Denver. Unions are gaining support in Congress for another $32 billion in federal aid to protect airline workers from layoffs for another six months. Still, it's too early to say how the issue will turn out. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

With tens of thousands of airline workers facing layoffs this fall, labor groups are pushing Congress for more federal money to keep them on the payroll until next spring.

The unions have gained significant support among Democrats. They hope that the prospect of mass layoffs weeks before a pivotal election will sway some Republican votes.

The airline industry has been battered by the virus pandemic. In March, companies got $32 billion to help cover payroll costs for six months in exchange for not laying off workers. The money and the ban on layoffs both end Oct. 1, meaning there could be large-scale job cuts less than five weeks before the Nov. 3 election.

“Ultimately the White House will be responsible for that, and so will the 23 Republican senators who are up for re-election,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants. “I don’t believe that’s a political risk that anyone is willing to take.”

But approval is far from certain. Airlines are already downsizing — persuading thousands of workers to take voluntary buyouts or early retirement. And they have lined up billions of dollars in private borrowing, giving them a better chance of surviving a long slump in travel.

The CEO of Southwest Airlines said he supports an extension of federal dollars for airline payrolls, but he doesn't see the same urgency in Washington.

Back in the spring, “there was broad support from Congress, the administration and even the president," Gary Kelly said. "This time around, that is not the case.”

Kelly made the comments in an employee video after a union representing flight attendants and other Southwest employees asked him to publicly support the payroll-aid extension.