- - Monday, March 23, 2020

America’s airline industry — which has weathered financial collapses, labor disputes and the worst terror attack of our lifetimes — is now facing its greatest challenge yet. With Americans wisely cancelling travel and forgoing vacations during the coronavirus crisis, airline bookings are in free fall. And like any business with employees to support and bills to pay, airlines can’t sustain this situation for long.

What is particularly alarming is that the pain of the airlines will extend to the rest of America’s workforce and economy. Aviation supports more than 10 million U.S. jobs — from the men and women who keep planes in the air and passengers happy, to the drivers, restaurateurs and hotel concierges who rely on a steady stream of passengers and cargo to stay employed. Commercial aviation supports more than 5 percent of the U.S. GDP. There’s not a single state — or indeed, a single community — whose economy doesn’t significantly benefit from a strong aviation industry.

I had the honor of serving as U.S. secretary of Transportation under President Reagan, who, perhaps more than anyone, embodies our country’s commitment to a free market. This current crisis is not of any one company’s doing. Constraints set by our government, while necessary in these circumstances, are preventing the free market from functioning. That’s why you’re seeing agreement by experts from across the political spectrum that the government must take quick action to protect airlines — and more importantly, the men and women whose jobs the industry supports.

I’d like to set the facts straight on the notion that airline workers deserve to see their companies fail because airlines did not properly prepare for this sort of crisis. Over the past decade, even while emerging from years of bankruptcies and other financial struggles, airlines have made more-than-substantial preparations for a rainy day, while investing significantly in their product, in their employees and in retiring debt.

For example, since 2010, U.S. airlines have invested $139 billion in capital improvement, including new and environmentally friendly aircraft. During the past decade, the average airline employee saw compensation rise by more than 40 percent. And in 2018 alone, U.S. passenger airlines spent $53 billion on wages and benefits for their employees.

The truth is that no business could have prepared adequately for a crisis like this. As our economy continues to tumble, Congress must move expeditiously to protect airline jobs and this vital industry. This weekend, the CEOs of the 10 major U.S. carriers called on Congress to quickly move an aid package that includes payroll protection grants, loans and loan guarantees, and tax measures. With this assistance from the federal government, airlines would be better positioned to avoid furloughs and layoffs.

Any member of Congress who wants to save the U.S. economy from the dramatic effect of the coronavirus should recognize how crucial airlines and their workers are to that mission. President Trump and leaders in Congress have already expressed their support for a package that would help America’s airlines and their hundreds of thousands of workers ride out this crisis.

There is little time to waste. We need to see action now to contain whatever economic damage is yet to come and to ensure that airlines and their workers will continue to boost our economy when it’s time for America to get back on its feet.

• Jim Burnley served as the ninth U.S. secretary of Transportation under President Reagan. He is a partner at Venable LLP and an adviser to American Airlines.

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