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Tens of thousands of airline employees laid off, furloughed as Congress fails to reach deal

This affects 40,000+ airline workers nationwide
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Posted at 4:19 PM, Oct 01, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-01 23:21:58-04

It could be the worst day in the history of job losses in aviation.

Tens of thousands of airline workers are without a job as their employers urge Congress to act. At midnight, time ran out on a crucial deadline that could spell devastation for airlines and its employees unless the government steps in to help.

Jim Shilling is more bird than a man. He’s been flying commercially for nearly 40 years since he was 18-years-old. But the Bradenton pilot, and aviation consultant, has never seen the aviation industry in this serious of a crisis.

Right now, air travel is down 70% compared to last year due to aftershocks of the continued coronavirus pandemic, and as travelers are shy to return.

“The situation is probably the worst we could have imagined. 9/11 was all we really had to go on before, that’s the template we had to use," he said. "These factors are worse than 9/11 could have ever been.”

Shilling hasn’t flown a plane in nine months and he’s about to take a 50% pay cut to help keep his airline afloat.

“This is hurting, people are hurting and they are going to hurt a lot," he said.

Nationwide, more than 40,000 airline workers including pilots, flight attendants, bag handlers, counter agents and more are furloughed or laid off.

“We wake up every day and don’t know what tomorrow will hold," said Shilling. "Will the government come through and help us? That remains to be seen.”

In March, the government gave airlines $25 billion through the CARES Act that helped keep the payroll going. But that money expired at midnight Thursday.

Another round of it isn’t certain as Republicans and Democrats fail to reach a deal on a new COVID relief package.

“Without that [federal money], we will see more airlines go out of business," said Shilling.

It also means a hit to the economy. Thousands of out-of-work citizens mean they’re not paying taxes and are likely tightening the belt on spending. But consumers are also hurt. You may now find it harder to find certain flights, especially at smaller airports.

“The air is in my blood, that’s what I like to do. My hopes are to continue to do that," said Shilling.

Shilling says there are several aftershocks to the industry of which the American public may not be aware. One is the requirement of flying every 90 days to "stay current." Shilling says airlines are having to send pilots back to the simulators as flights are grounded, an expensive and arduous process for companies. Shilling, himself, has had to practice on the simulators in order to meet Federal Aviation Administration requirements.

This shakeup to the industry can also be devastating to pilots. Shilling says this is a niche career in which it can prove difficult for pilots to successfully shift careers. If they do want to switch to another carrier, they'll face other problems.

"If I decided to fly for another carrier, there is no lateral move in the airline industry," he said, "When you leave your airline as a captain flying big airplanes all over the world and you go to another airline you go to the very bottom of the seniority list and the very bottom of the pay structure."

Shilling stresses the industry needs federal government assistance until consumers return. He believes there's much-unfounded fear surrounding the level of risk when it comes to contracting the coronavirus while flying.

"The air on airplanes is recirculated to a very small amount. It comes in through the engines, then comes into the cabin as pressurized air and that air is filtered out from the tail. All the air on the airplane is literally replaced every two to three minutes. It is better air than in your house or office," he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise on their website: "Most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes."

But the CDC also states that the activities surrounding air travel could increase your risks such as security lines, potentially crowded flights, and the ridesharing and public transportation that takes you to and from the airport.

When it comes to the layoffs and furloughs, the airlines say they could reverse course quickly if a deal is reached in days.