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Airlines Are Bracing For Potential Layoffs As Federal Payroll Aid To Expire Soon


The coronavirus pandemic continues to devastate airlines' business model. The nation's four biggest airlines now report combined second-quarter losses of more than $10 billion. And as NPR's David Schaper reports, any recovery seems a long way off.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: There's no sugar coating it when you're losing billions. Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly compares battling the virus to fighting a prolonged war.

GARY KELLY: We knew this would be a long, saw-toothed slog with a lot of unexpected twists and turns, and it's proving to be so.

SCHAPER: Airlines flew 85 to 90% fewer passengers this April, May and June than they did the second quarter last year. A brief uptick in June and early July fizzled as new COVID-19 cases spiked. Again, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly...

KELLY: It's really almost impossible to plan right now.

SCHAPER: Southwest says it doesn't intend on cutting any jobs before the end of the year. But American and United, which both reported net losses of more than $2 billion in the second quarter, have notified tens of thousands of employees that they may lose their jobs when federal payroll aid runs out September 30. Here's American CEO Doug Parker.

DOUG PARKER: We know we will be a smaller airline going forward. And we've worked to right-size all aspects of the organization to that reality.

SCHAPER: To try to prevent mass layoffs, airline employee unions are calling on Congress to extend payroll support. While in normal times, airlines would be trying to outdo one another with low fares or better service, they're now competing on sanitation. United CEO Scott Kirby claims the filtration systems and airflow patterns make the air quality on a plane better than that in office buildings or even hospitals.

SCOTT KIRBY: And you combine that with our mask policy and our cleaning protocols and it really is one of the safest places you can be if you're going to leave your house.

SCHAPER: United will now require passengers to wear masks not only on a plane but at the gate, at check-in, and at baggage claim, too. Other airlines are following suit. But only Southwest and Delta say they will continue to block out middle seats to provide more social distancing on flights. Here's Delta CEO Ed Bastian.

ED BASTIAN: When we surveyed customers about the reasons you're purchasing a ticket on Delta, the space on board the plane, the blocked middle seats, has gone to the No. 1 reason.

SCHAPER: But no matter how much space there is on board, no airline executive expects demand to really pick up again until there is a coronavirus vaccine.

David Schaper, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLA BOO'S "ALOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.