Airline furloughs loom for thousands of workers

Capt. Eric Ferguson is president of Allied Pilots Association, the certified collective bargaining agent for the 15,000 pilots who fly for Fort Worth, Texas-based American Airlines. He has flown the Airbus A320 since 2003. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

As an American Airlines pilot, I’ve seen up close Covid-19’s destructive impact on our company and industry. A quick glance around any large US airport tells the story, with largely empty terminals and dozens of parked aircraft. For those of us still flying, our hours, and thus paychecks, have been reduced. Many of my colleagues chose to minimize their risk of exposure through voluntary leaves of absence or early retirement, helping the airline adjust to the drop in demand. But those efforts only go so far.

In response to the virus’ devastating economic impact, lawmakers passed the Payroll Support Program (PSP), which barred airlines from laying off workers in exchange for a bailout. If Congress doesn’t extend the PSP before it expires on October 1, tens of thousands of airline workers will lose their jobs this week. American Airlines has already announced plans to involuntarily furlough or lay off 19,000 employees, including about 1,600 pilots, beginning October 1.

    Our nation’s airlines must be ready to meet pent-up demand for air travel when the pandemic subsides. Without a healthy airline industry, the robust economic recovery we’re all hoping for will be in serious jeopardy. In simple terms, when people fly for leisure, they spend money, and when they fly for business, they close deals.
    The pandemic's financial impact on airlines will be worse than the 9/11 attacks
    A PSP extension would allow time for vaccine development and distribution and broader testing, which are both key to reopening international travel. Absent an extension, airlines will shrink and many smaller US markets will lose scheduled air service, hurting local businesses.
    Furloughs at international carriers like American Airlines will require some of the remaining pilots to be reassigned and retrained, complicating efforts to restart operations. Like other large international carriers, we operate multiple aircraft types — smaller aircraft for shorter domestic routes, and bigger aircraft for international flights.

    Longstanding public policy explicitly acknowledges the importance of our nation’s airlines. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency — a standalone US federal agency designed to counter threats to physical and cyber infrastructure — identifies airlines as “critical infrastructure.” It defines critical infrastructure as “considered so vital to the United States that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination thereof.”

    Association of Flight Attendants International President Sara Nelson (L), Allied Pilots Association President Eric Ferguson (3rd L) and American Airlines CEO Doug Parker join fellow airline executives, union heads and political leaders to call on Congress to pass an extension of the Payroll Support Program to save thousands of jobs during a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol September 22, 2020 in Washington, DC.
    Some US aircraft make up the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, which helps the Department of Defense during large-scale military mobilizations, ensuring a strong national defense.
    The Railway Labor Act, which governs airline industry collective bargaining, is structured to prevent disruptions in service and ensure the continued movement of interstate commerce.
    Airlines serve as a primary driver of economic growth. According to the trade association Airlines for America, the industry has a multiplier effect when it comes to job creation. Even if you don’t work directly in the airline industry, chances are you benefit from it. Companies rely on commercial airlines to maintain their just-in-time supply chains; passenger carriers transport a huge amount of freight on a daily basis. On a broader scale, airlines connect our world by bringing people closer together and fostering an appreciation for different cultures.
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    Senators Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Susan Collins of Maine recently introduced the Air Carrier Worker Support Extension Act of 2020, which would extend the PSP for airline workers through March 2021. In the House, Delegate Stacey Plaskett of the U.S. Virgin Islands and Representative David Joyce of Ohio have introduced a companion bill, H.R. 8345.

      We urge Congress to approve this vital legislation or include airline industry support in a broader relief package — and to do so immediately. Whether you’re a frontline employee at an airline or work somewhere else entirely, we all have a stake in helping to ensure a strong economic recovery.
      In industry terms, we simply don’t have enough fuel in our tanks right now. We need Congress to help us refill, keep us going and get us over the horizon.
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