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Airline Workers Brace As Federal Aid Runs Out This Month

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Employees at the nation's airlines are getting nervous. Many pilots, flight attendants, mechanics and customer service agents have been kept on the payroll since March only with the help of federal aid. That funding runs out at the end of this month. And if it's not extended, tens of thousands of them could be out of work on October 1. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Save our jobs. Save our jobs. Save our jobs.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Several dozen flight attendants, pilots and other airline employees masked up as they chanted and marched around the Federal Plaza downtown Chicago Wednesday to draw attention to what they say is a dire situation.

JEFF HEISEY: So I'm coming up on four decades of service. And I have to tell you, I have never seen anything like this in my career with United Airlines.

SCHAPER: United flight attendant Jeff Heisey (ph) says he's not just talking about the calamitous drop in the number of people flying because of the pandemic, but the impending mass layoffs he and his co-workers are facing.

HEISEY: Almost 12,000 of our members are at risk for involuntary furlough.

SCHAPER: And that's just one group of employees at one airline. Industry-wide, come October 1, layoffs could top 40,000. And that's in addition to the tens of thousands who have already taken early retirement or other incentives to leave their airline jobs voluntarily. In the initial coronavirus relief act passed in March, Congress and the Trump administration included $25 billion in grants to airlines to keep paying employees for six months. But now, that time is almost up. Democrats, some Republicans and the president have all said they favor an extension of the payroll support program. But the airline aid was left out of the latest relief package proposed this week by Senate Republicans. And the uncertainty weighs heavily on airline employees.

HEATHER HOULDING: We're in this limbo right now.

SCHAPER: Heather Houlding (ph) is a Chicago-based flight attendant for American Airlines.

HOULDING: Are we going back to work in October? Or do we have to figure out and find another job? You know, we're kind of in a time crunch right now with what our backup plan is going to be.

SCHAPER: Airline employee unions held a similar rally outside the Capitol in Washington, D.C., to put pressure on Congress while their bosses at the airlines fret, too.

NICK CALIO: Right now, we're fighting for survival. Make no bones about it.

SCHAPER: Nick Calio heads the group Airlines for America. He says after a brief uptick in air travel this summer that peaked over the Labor Day weekend, demand is already slumping again as more profitable business travel bookings remain down close to 90%.

CALIO: It's going to be a different world. People are going to see. You're already seeing fewer flights. Come October 1, you're going to see a further reduction on the number of flights that are operating.

SCHAPER: Calio and others say it may take four to five years for the airline industry to fully recover - if it ever does. So wouldn't another round of payroll support funding for the airlines just delay the inevitable of mass layoffs? Former airline executive Robert Mann, who is now an industry consultant, argues the jobs are worth saving.

ROBERT MANN: A job in the airlines business probably supports somewhere between seven and 11 jobs elsewhere in the economy - in the hospitality business, in the support technologies, in other transportation, boats.

SCHAPER: And Mann warns that a couple of airlines may not survive the pandemic without more federal aid.

MANN: It's the gut-check question. How much of an economy do you want going forward?

SCHAPER: Congressional and White House negotiators will have to try to answer that question during this campaign season in which the two parties agree on almost nothing.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ALBUM LEAF'S "DESCENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.