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The collapse in travel that has followed is jeopardizing the jobs of 750,000 people directly employed by US airlines

A decade of bumper profits hasnt cushioned the US airline industry from the coronavirus pandemic. Analysts are predicting many face bankruptcy in the coming months unless the government steps in.

Right now, its their workers who are feeling the full force of the industrys crisis and they are terrified.

We dont know how we are going to provide for our families, said a flight attendant with United Airlines in Kentucky, who wished to remain anonymous. Working in the industry right now is very scary. There are a lot of unknowns. News about the coronavirus is changing so rapidly the information we are receiving is outdated by the time it is disseminated.

Major US airlines experienced their 10th consecutive year of profits in 2019 before the coronavirus outbreak hit the US. The collapse in travel that has followed is jeopardizing the jobs of 750,000 people directly employed by US airlines. The three largest airlines in the US, American, Delta, and United, are already asking employees to volunteer for unpaid leave.

No one thought a month ago we would be facing an existential crisis. People are moving from disbelief, to grief, to anger, to hope, to denial, and to more anger. Trips are cancelled day to day, planes are empty, and passengers are nervous, said a Delta Airlines flight attendant in Michigan who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

We flight attendants have grave concerns about continuing to pour drinks, serve snacks, and collect trash, particularly because we know the virus can cling to surfaces and we are being shorted on personal protective equipment such as gloves and sanitizing wipes.

Delta Airlines sent out a corporate email to all employees on 17 March with six prompts for workers to help Delta Airlines through the coronavirus outbreak, which included asking workers to do unpaid, volunteer work for a program to sanitize customer-facing areas, and to sign up for Deltas American Express credit card. Apply for and spend on the Card to help Delta, and encourage your friends and family to do the same, said the email.

I think its repugnant. This is my place of employment, not a charity. Where is senior leadership during all of this? It would make a huge impact if I saw them in line doing what they want all of us to do, added the Delta Airlines flight attendant.

According to Delta Airlines, 10,000 employees have volunteered to take unpaid leave so far.

If they dont get enough volunteers, they will do furloughs, said a Delta ramp agent in Minneapolis, who volunteered for a 90 day leave and is awaiting to hear when it will start. There arent hour cuts yet, but they are begging people to go home when it gets slow.

A Delta Airlines baggage handler in Minnesota added, the mood is one of extreme worry and wondering day to day if were going to lose our jobs.

Flights cut

Passengers returning on a Delta flight from Amsterdam at Hartsfield Jackson international airport in Atlanta. Photograph: Curtis Compton/AP

The largest US airlines are making drastic cuts to their flight schedules; American Airlines has cut domestic flights by 30% in April and international flights by 75%, with deeper cuts expected for May. Delta Airlines plans to cut up to 70% of its flights and ground at least 600 planes, more than half its fleet. United Airlines is cutting flights by 60%.

Im terrified about the possibility of losing my job. Today I worked a flight with literally 11 passengers on board, and its only going to get worse from here, said an American Airlines flight attendant who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. Not only am I scared of getting furloughed, but also of bringing the virus home with me to my family. Unfortunately I cant self-quarantine because I have to go to work. My airline will not provide any type of paid leave unless I actually test positive for the virus. All of this is very disheartening. Im getting depressed.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the US Airlines industry is seeking a $50bn bailout from the federal government in the form of direct aid and loan guarantees for relief due to the downturn in the industry caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

This truly is a national emergency. Where flight attendants are focusing now is recognizing not only are we still going to work and deal with issues on the frontlines and our own healthcare, weve got an even bigger issue because soon if there isnt relief we arent going to have to the tools to take care of ourselves because the paychecks will stop, Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, told the Guardian.

In just 30 days time we went from the biggest profits the industry has ever made, with big plans to hire nearly 100,000 people this year across the industry. All that hiring has evaporated and now were talking about the exact opposite extreme of facing 70 to 80% furloughs and layoffs.

Labor unions are calling for any bailout to consist of a worker relief program based on payroll continuance so workers can remain in their job and rely on their regular wages, with strings attached to ensure airline companies dont misuse bailout funds to enrich shareholders and executives.

Over the past five years, US airlines have spent $45bn in stock buybacks and nearly $750m in executive payouts.

Workers want to make sure the airline survives so that they have jobs, but they also want to make sure that they get some protection along with the bailout, said Kip Hedges, a former Delta baggage handler for 26 years who is now a union organizer with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM).

Workers also have talked about the need to make sure that executives dont get bonuses from the bailouts. Theyve been through this before and many are deeply suspicious of executive motives.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/mar/23/existential-crisis-airline-workers-fear-layoffs-amid-coronavirus-pandemic