Key Senator Questions Airline Bosses Over $54 Billion in Pandemic Aid
July 17, 2021
A key lawmaker wrote to the bosses of a half-dozen domestic airlines Friday asking why apparent staffing shortages are causing flight delays and cancellations despite the carriers receiving billions of dollars in pandemic relief designed to keep workers on the payroll.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Commerce Committee, which oversees the aviation industry, sent letters to chief executives at Allegiant, American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and Republic — a regional airline that provides flights for American, Delta and United. She questioned their management as travel has surged amid a drop in coronavirus cases and rising vaccinations totals.
“I am concerned that, at best, these airlines poorly managed, marketing of flights and workforce as more people are traveling, and, at worst, they failed to meet the intent of tax payer funding and prepare for the surge in travel that we are now witnessing,” Cantwell wrote.
Cantwell asked each airline 11 questions about its staffing levels, the source of its challenges and how it used the government assistance. She asked that airlines brief her staff by the end of the month.
Air passenger numbers dropped precipitously at the start of the pandemic, by as much as 95 percent on some days. Congress responded by approving the multibillion-dollar Payroll Support Program (PSP), designed to keep airline workers on the job.
Lawmakers followed up with billions more in subsequent relief bills designed to last through September. Aid to passenger airlines ultimately totaled $54 billion.
Amid flights being canceled or delayed as travel booms, airlines are facing questions from lawmakers, frustrated customers and labor unions about a perceived lack of preparation for the rising demand.
Airlines were prohibited from involuntarily laying off or furloughing workers while getting help from the federal government, but some encouraged workers to take lengthy unpaid leaves or to quit altogether. The six airlines Cantwell addressed have collectively shed about 43,000 jobs since March 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, a figure that represents 15 percent of their combined workforce.
“This reported workforce shortage runs counter to the objective and spirit of the PSP, which was to enable airlines to endure the pandemic and keep employees on payroll so that the industry was positioned to capture a rebound in demand,” Cantwell wrote. “Additionally, these disruptions in air travel have harmed U.S. consumers just as the American economy is rebounding, and the existing airline workforce is being placed under immense pressure to meet demand.”
Asked about Cantwell’s letter, Delta Air Lines referred to comments that chief executive Ed Bastian made during an earnings briefing this week, saying the airline is in “active recovery.”
“We’re taking all the right steps, primarily through increased staffing levels at both Delta and our contract service providers to service this demand,” he said.
A spokeswoman for American Airlines referred questions to Airlines for America, a trade group. The organization said in a statement that “without the PSP, the impacts of the pandemic would have been far more devastating to our industry and our workforce, and our return to the skies would have been dramatically slowed.”
Southwest Airlines said in a statement that it maintained service at every U.S. airport it serves and is supporting the flight schedule it built for the summer.
“We were staffed for what we’re flying and we’re flying for what we staffed,” the statement read.
Hilarie Grey, a spokeswoman for Allegiant, said the airline had been affected by “uncontrollable factors” such as unusual weather and staffing problems at the Transportation Security Administration.
The two other airlines did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
Cantwell also wrote to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, asking how her department has overseen relief funding.
“We must know whether airlines were irresponsible in aggressively advertising summer flights that they are now unable to fully operate due to a labor shortage potentially of their own making,” Cantwell wrote.
The tone of Cantwell’s letters was striking, because she has been a strong advocate for the federal aid. A major pilots union named her the “pilot partisan of the year” last month, saying the aid program would not have come about without her leadership.
On Wednesday, Republican members of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which has broad investigative authority, wrote to Airlines for America to raise concerns about labor shortages and to ask how the carriers planned to bounce back from the pandemic.
“Airline companies play an essential role in the American economy, and we are especially concerned that they get back to operating at 100% capacity, particularly as they received billions in taxpayer funds during the pandemic,” the GOP lawmakers wrote.
In recent months, the industry has seen a rapid rebound in travel, with daily passenger numbers sometimes topping 2 million — a figure approaching pre-pandemic levels.
According to a Transportation Department report this week, the top 10 U.S. carriers operated more flights in May than in any month since the pandemic began. In May, the most recent month for which data is available, airlines flew more than 517,000 flights, compared with just over 180,000 last May.
Domestic airline traffic is 76 percent of what it was before the pandemic. With that growth has come disruption, leading airlines to adjust schedules and in some cases cancel flights. At the same time, the TSA has scrambled to hire enough workers to keep travelers flowing through checkpoints.
American and Southwest have canceled about 3 percent of flights since the beginning of June, and about one-third of their flights were delayed more than 15 minutes, according to data from FlightAware, an aviation data company. In contrast, Delta canceled fewer than 0.2 percent of its flights and saw less than one-fifth of them delayed.
In late June, American announced that it would cancel more than 900 flights through mid-July — a move designed to avoid last-minute changes that could leave passengers stranded or delayed. Although the airline said the cancellations represented about 1 percent of its scheduled flights, the announcement drew widespread criticism.
Earlier that month, thousands of Southwest passengers were delayed or stranded after weather and computer problems forced the carrier to cancel hundreds of flights. Airlines generally build enough flexibility into their schedules to enable them to rebound when problems occur, but analysts say that with many carriers still trying to find the right balance between customer numbers and employee levels, disruptions are inevitable.
The Transport Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO, which represents airline employees — including ramp workers, flight attendants, gate agents and pilot instructors at 17 airlines — has warned that staffing shortages are affecting morale and that some workers report feeling exhausted and overwhelmed.
In a letter this week to Federal Aviation Administrator Steve Dickson, the union said the crisis could undermine the safety and efficiency of the aviation system. It urged the agency to ensure that airlines are staffed to support operations.
The union also said carriers are not matching staffing needs with planned flight schedules. It accused airlines of publishing unrealistic travel schedules, given the staffing levels, and alleged that some carriers are invoking clauses in contracts to extend employee hours and deny workers time off.
“This crisis is adversely affecting the health, safety, and well-being of airline workers, risking the safety of our aviation system, and undermining the long-term health of the entire system,” the union’s leadership wrote.