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House chairs seek probe into airlines use of federal aid

Two leading House Democrats are asking for a federal investigation into whether airlines used any of the US$54 billion they received in government pandemic relief to pay employees to quit.

The lawmakers said on Friday that buyouts to employees made a pilot shortage worse and contributed to widespread flight delays and cancellations that have ruined travel plans for millions of people.

They asked the United States Treasury Department’s inspector general to investigate and report back by September 22, how airlines used the taxpayer money and whether any of it was spent on reducing staff.

After air travel plunged in early 2020, airlines offered incentives that encouraged thousands of workers to quit or take long-term leaves of absence. The airlines were caught understaffed when travel bounced back strongly this spring and summer.

The airlines have reduced their schedules and stepped up hiring to compensate, but passengers are still enduring more cancellations and delays than normal.

So far this year, airlines have cancelled 2.5 per cent of US flights, or about 154,000 flights — 30,000 more than if cancellations were occurring at the 2019 rate — according to data from tracking service

Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York, chairwoman of the House Oversight Committee, and Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, chairman of a special panel on the government’s response to the pandemic, requested the investigation.

“American taxpayers supported the airline industry during its darkest days at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, when nearly 75 per cent of commercial flights were grounded. Americans deserve transparency into how airlines have used the federal funds they have received,” the lawmakers said in a letter to Richard Delmar, deputy inspector general of the US Treasury Department, which oversaw the aid.

The number of airline passengers in the US plunged by 95 per cent during part of April 2020, compared with a year earlier, according to government figures. The number of passengers has since nearly fully recovered to pre-pandemic levels, and the Labor Day weekend saw bigger crowds than in 2019.

Airlines for America, a trade group of the largest US carriers, said federal funds went only to employee wages and benefits, as required by the March 2020 law that first authorised the payments, and covered only 77 per cent of the airlines’ payroll costs.

Without the federal money, the group said in a statement, “our aviation system would look like Europe, Canada or other areas that did not have any similar programme. Or even worse, if not for the (aid), we may not be flying at all”.

The Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing in December on the federal relief for airlines, with senators concluding that the program saved many jobs.


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