Key lawmaker pushes U.S. airlines to explain worker shortages and flight delays after billions in federal aid


Washington Democrat Senator Maria Cantwell and chair of the Senate Commerce Committee wrote to CEOs of American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, Republic and Allegiant airlines on Friday, asking them about reports of shortage of pilots, hostesses air and workers and to account for using the $ 54 billion in federal relief to keep workers on the job who were not dependent on layoffs.

Cantwell wrote that she is “concerned that at best” airlines “have mismanaged the marketing of their flights and their workforce as more and more people are traveling, and at worse, they have failed to meet the target of taxpayer funding and prepare for the surge in travel that we are seeing now. ”

The senator also requested a briefing of the staff of each of the airlines by the end of the month.

The airline industry was hit hard at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic last year, as travel restrictions were enforced and Americans were encouraged to stay at home to slow the spread of the virus. Airlines have significantly reduced their flight schedules due to the drop in demand for essentially zero travel.

At the request of the industry, Congress created the Payroll Support Program to provide loans to airlines to support the compensation and benefits of workers. The three billion-dollar rounds of federal payroll support for the airline industry have banned layoffs, involuntary leaves or pay cuts for employees.

Airlines have, however, put employees on leave during disruptions in federal aid. To further reduce costs, airlines have offered voluntary buy-back and early retirement packages and have asked workers to take unpaid or low-paid voluntary leave. Still, the airline industry ended the year with huge record losses.

Now, with the majority of Americans vaccinated and the country reopening, leisure flights and reservations are returning to pre-pandemic levels and airlines have started recalling workers who were on voluntary leave.

American announced at the end of June that it would cut 1% of flights from its schedule until mid-July, citing bad weather and understaffing.

Last month, Southwest canceled or delayed thousands of flights – most of all U.S. airlines – saying its schedules and staff have also been hit by growing demand and weather conditions.

“This reported labor shortage goes against the purpose and spirit of the (Payroll Support Program), which was to enable airlines to weather the pandemic and keep employees on the payroll so the industry is able to capture a rebound in demand, ”Cantwell wrote. in his letters. She added that “air travel disruptions have hurt American consumers just as the US economy rebounds and the current airline workforce is under immense pressure to meet demand.”

CNN has reached out to airlines for comment on the letters.

In a statement to CNN, Southwest said it is “equipped for what we fly and we fly for what we have on staff.”

Southwest was able to avoid the layoffs and involuntary leaves that other airlines imposed last year, after some of its employees took voluntary unpaid leave, buybacks and early retirement plans. As bookings and travel increased, Southwest recalled in April all flight attendants and some pilots who were on voluntary leave to return to work this summer.

“We are fortunate to be the only major airline to maintain service at every U.S. airport we served before the pandemic, and to have used Congressional Payroll Support to maintain staff (continuing a 50-year history of no layoffs). , without holidays) to support both this continuous service and the flight program we have established for the summer of 2021, ”the company said.

The company reiterated that the “unusually high number” of flight delays and cancellations last month was due to “prolonged and widespread thunderstorms, infrastructure problems and unrelated technological problems.”

CNN’s Chris Isidore, Rashard Rose, Gregory Wallace and Pete Muntean contributed to this report.


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