By Nathalie Voit

Chief executives from seven major U.S. airway carriers will be summoned to testify before Congress on Dec. 8, according to an exclusive story from Reuters. The CEOs of American Airlines, Delta Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Alaska Airlines, United Airlines, Spirit Airlines, and JetBlue Airways are set to answer questions before the Senate Commerce Committee regarding their use of COVID-19-related federal relief aid. 

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), chair of the Commerce Committee, called for the hearing due to staffing shortages and flight cancellations. Widespread workforce shortages in recent months have prompted major carriers to cancel and delay hundreds of flights, wreaking havoc on consumers eager to travel. 

“There should have been every reason, particularly given the bailout money for the airlines, to prepare for the surge [in air travel] we’re seeing now,” said Rep. Eleanor Holmes (D-DC). “This money was for a very specific purpose.”

U.S. airlines received a combined total of $54 billion in taxpayer bailout money starting in March 2020. The pandemic relief money, dubbed the “Paycheck Protection Program,” was approved by Congress as part of the CARES Act to buffer against any COVID-19-related cuts to airlines’ payroll costs through Sept. 30. Specifically, the money was intended to keep employees on staff. 

“We made sure aviation workers were in place to meet the return demand for air travel after access to vaccination,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.

According to Nelson, the airline industry “created a COVID-19 relief plan that no other industry got.”

As part of the federal relief package, air carriers were prohibited from laying off staff and reducing workers’ salaries. Airlines were also instructed to limit executive compensation and halt stock buybacks and dividend payments. 

However, despite having received billions of dollars in federal relief aid, airlines were caught severely short-staffed once travel demand resumed in the spring. Many had cut corners by offering leaves of absence, employee buyouts, and early retirement options.

Congress is now demanding an accounting of where the government pandemic relief money went.

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

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

Congress is keen on expanding consumer protections for fliers. In addition to the oversight hearing scheduled next week, a group of senators led by Democrat Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) reintroduced comprehensive legislation on Nov. 17 aimed at ensuring “airlines provide passengers with fair compensation, refunds, and recourse in the event of airline-caused flight delays and cancellations.”