Congress Demands Accounting of Airline Pandemic Relief Money

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In the wake of several incidents of mass airline delays and cancellations this year, several Congressional lawmakers are demanding an accounting of where the $50 billion in government pandemic relief money to the aviation industry has gone.

Ostensibly, the bailout grants and loans issued last year were to help airlines keep their payroll going and came with the stipulation that there were to be no firings or layoffs.

Airlines were able to get around that and bankroll more money, by initiating buyouts and early retirements among its employees.

But many carriers found themselves short-staffed and unprepared this year as the pent-up demand for travel surprised them and the number of fliers blew up.

And now, according to a great story in Politico, lawmakers want to know where all that money really went. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes (D-District of Columbia) is calling for hearings before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, of which she is a senior member.

“There should have been every reason, particularly given the bailout money for the airlines, to prepare for the surge we’re seeing now,” Holmes told Politico. “This money was for a very specific purpose.”

The Senate’s transportation panel already has plans to take testimony on the subject next month.

“The airlines owe Americans better service,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a noted aviation watchdog. “In my view, they’re failing to keep their side of the bargain.”

Added Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.): “If they can’t keep their promises to taxpayers and travelers, Congress should find out why.”

But the lobby group for most U.S. carriers, Airlines for America, insists that the delays and cancellations are not related to the bailout loans and grants.

American Airlines, Spirit, and Southwest have all suffered huge issues related to staffing shortages as well as technical issues and weather this year. Southwest, in fact, had two separate incidents of delays and canceled flights.

“Travelers have been returning to the skies at a rapid pace, and U.S. airlines are working to hire and train new employees and return to service aircraft that had been put in storage in order to meet the growing demand,” Airlines for America said in a statement to the media outlet.

At least one Senator was sympathetic to the airlines.

“They’re dealing with COVID and, just like the rest of this country and the rest of the world, it’s made life very difficult and much more complicated,” said Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo). “It’s not the airlines failing to act. … They are doing the best they can.”

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