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COVID-19 Threatens Flight Attendants, Future Of Global Aviation


One of the industries that the coronavirus pandemic is threatening is the airline industry. Flights are almost empty. Flight schedules have been dramatically reduced. The warnings from trade associations are dire. People who work for airlines don't know what's going to happen. Sara Nelson is with me this morning. She's the head of the Association of Flight Attendants. It's a union that represents almost 50,000 flight attendants from 20 airlines. Good morning, Sara.

SARA NELSON: Good morning.

KING: So amid all this uncertainty, how are the flight attendants that you represent holding up?

NELSON: Flight attendants are very concerned about what happens next. And this has been difficult to be on the front line since the beginning of this crisis. We were over in China, working over to China, and those flights started to get pulled down. So the airline industry has been feeling the effects of this for the last two months-plus. And now we are looking at massive layoffs. So if we don't get the relief that is necessary, we're looking at laying off between 60%, 70% of people right away. This is 2 million jobs we're talking about in airports and in airlines, and we could have a million people on the street right away.

KING: OK, and that's - to be clear, you're saying that's the worry. That hasn't happened yet?

NELSON: That is the worry that hasn't happened yet, but this is coming in a matter of days if this relief package doesn't come together. And I should be really clear that while there is a deal that was announced last night, the airline deal is not finished. We put forward a plan that's workers first. It focuses on keeping people in their jobs, getting their paychecks and connected to their health care. And that is what's on the table. The Democrats have worked with us on that. It's ready to be signed off. But the Republicans have not signed off on that yet. So we really implore them to do that.

That keeps the systems in place that are working so that people continue to get those paychecks and are ready to lift off once we flatten this curve and can raise up our airline industry that is the backbone of our economy and going to be so critical for us to be able to restart.

KING: Is that package that you just referred to, the one that the airlines have worked on, is that part of the $2 trillion economic relief package, or is it something separate?

NELSON: It is part of it, but it is not - the Republicans have not agreed to put workers first. They have not agreed to pay our paychecks that will keep us on the jobs and connected to our health care because, remember, we are talking about a full pull down of the airline industry here, with the exception of essential flights. These are some of the things people are talking about. And even right now flight attendants are talking about going to work and flying around with one person, three people, 11 people.

Now, we have to continue essential service to help fight the virus, but we are going to see a dramatic pullback on all of the flights, and we are talking about furlough numbers that are in - up to a million people. So all we ever saw after 9/11 was 20% in furloughs. That was the highest mark. We're talking about over 70% here. This is devastating.

KING: I want to ask you something. We have seen that in the deal that was agreed upon last night, $50 billion will reportedly go to the airlines. It sounds like what you're saying - correct me if I'm wrong - is that will go to the airlines but not expressly the people who work for the airlines who you fear will be laid off. Is that the problem?

NELSON: The way that the Republicans have wanted to structure this is not going to the workers; it's not going to the people on the front lines. That's what's revolutionary about the plan that we've put forward and that the Democrats have adopted and that the airlines support, and that is to direct that money directly to people's paychecks. The corporations do not get to decide how to use it. And by the way, they don't get to put it in stock buybacks, dividends or executive compensation.

And so let's think about this. Workers drive the economy. We're the taxpayers, and we're the consumers. If you take 100,000 flight attendants, you get - they make $50,000 a year, pay $7,100 in taxes, contribute $710 million taxes and $4.2 billion to our economy. And stock buybacks don't contribute anything to the GDP. So...

KING: And that actually is one of the things I think that people were very sort of suspicious of, the public at large, when we talk about bailing out the airline industry. Last question I'd like to ask you, very important - the flight attendants who are still working, do they feel safe?

NELSON: The flight attendants definitely want this government to be thinking about getting as many people in their homes as possible, using social distancing like other countries have and getting people on the ground and with their families to be safe as much as possible.

KING: Sara Nelson is the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants. Thank you so much for your time.

NELSON: Thank you. And I implore the Republicans to agree to this. Workers first. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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