With Transportation Industry In Trouble, Workers Wait For Federal Aid Package Airlines say they will likely have to lay off thousands of workers if Congress can't pass a coronavirus economic relief package soon. Amtrak, bus lines and subways are suffering, too.
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With Transportation Industry In Trouble, Workers Wait For Federal Aid Package

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With Transportation Industry In Trouble, Workers Wait For Federal Aid Package

With Transportation Industry In Trouble, Workers Wait For Federal Aid Package

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Airlines are saying they'll probably have to lay off tens of thousands of people if Congress doesn't pass an economic relief package soon. There are also reports that all passenger flights across the United States could temporarily shut down. Those are just reports for the moment. The transportation industry is being crushed, and as NPR's David Schaper reports, all of them desperately want a piece of the federal bailout.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: This is a surreal time to be working inside of an airport.

SARA NELSON: This is shocking, the speed at which this has completely changed our lives.

SCHAPER: Sara Nelson heads the Association of Flight Attendants, the union representing 50,000 flight attendants at 20 different airlines.

NELSON: When we get to the plane, the first thing we're checking is do we have the masks and gloves? Do we have the hand sanitizer? Do we have the Sani wipes to be able to wipe things down?

SCHAPER: Nelson says many flight attendants already are taking pay cuts because they're working fewer flights, and now they're facing possible layoffs or furloughs.

NELSON: This is our life now. We're thinking about that. And then we're walking through empty airports and wondering how long this can last.

SCHAPER: The airlines say not long before the industry is crippled. Many in Congress agree that airlines need federal help, but the sticking point is what form and what strings are attached. Unions don't want a repeat of previous bailouts, where Congress helped airlines but several still filed for bankruptcy and cut jobs, wages and pensions. After the recession, when passengers and profits returned, airlines pumped the extra cash into executive bonuses and buying back stock to boost shareholder value instead of building up reserves.

California Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee.

BARBARA LEE: Any bailout for the airline industry has got to focus on the workers, not the executives.

SCHAPER: President Trump agrees that a bailout bill should include restrictions on stock buybacks and bonuses. Airlines now agree but say they want half of the $50 billion in aid to be direct cash grants. Republicans largely want to restrict the aid to loans. Some Democrats propose some direct cash payments if used strictly to pay workers. But it's still not clear what, if anything, would go to baggage handlers, wheelchair attendants and others who work for contractors at the nation's airports.

LUERICA FIFFEE: The airline just laid me off a few days ago.

SCHAPER: Luerica Fiffee is a passenger service agent at New York's JFK Airport.

FIFFEE: I have seven kids to take care of, and no one is hiring at the moment. How am I going to manage?

SCHAPER: Some in Congress are pushing for increased support and health care for these hourly contract workers, and lots of other industries have their hands out for the government money. Cruise lines, hotels and resorts are shutting down and laying off workers. Amtrak has lost riders and so, too, have public transit systems. Steven Schlickman is a transportation consultant and the former head of Chicago's Regional Transportation Authority. He says with ridership down 50% to 90% in many cities, their revenue has plummeted, and with most bars, restaurants and shops closing down, there's a huge drop-off in sales tax revenue.

STEVEN SCHLICKMAN: And sales tax is actually probably the largest tax revenue source that transit systems rely on across the country.

SCHAPER: Congress and the White House agree to give transit agencies $20 billion in aid. Whether that's enough depends on how long people continue to stay at home.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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