With recent flight cancellations, staffing snafus and other problems plaguing the airlines lately, there's real concern the coming holiday weekend could become a chaotic mess for many Americans. Congress is starting to ask how, exactly, the companies have used the $50 billion in pandemic relief funding the taxpayers gave them over the past two years to ensure smooth operation ― given that smooth operation is the opposite of what some carriers have been providing lately. It's a valid question.
The airlines were hit especially hard by the pandemic, as it decimated daily travel numbers and necessitated cutting back flights. The airlines shed tens of thousands of employees last year mainly through voluntary furloughs and early retirement incentives. Those were necessary moves to weather the coronavirus storm. Predicting when and how quickly those travel numbers would come back up was always going to be an educated guess. And the reluctance of many employees (including pilots) to return to the job is a phenomenon that few could have predicted.
But the chaos surrounding Southwest and American Airlines flights last month was nonetheless a shock. A few isolated weather events caused canceled flights in Texas and Florida, but then the cancellations rippled throughout the country and into the following week. Right-wing trolls like Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, baselessly alleged that vaccine mandates were behind the staffing problems. In fact, the main problem appears to be that the companies were still too short-staffed from their pandemic cuts last year to quickly adjust to the changed schedules.
With this holiday weekend shaping up to be the busiest since before the pandemic started, some in Congress want to know why, with that $50 billion lifeline over the past 18 months, the airlines are apparently having such a hard time ramping back up as the pandemic eases. The airlines say they are the victims of pandemic chaos like everyone else, but some in Congress are pointing out that most industries didn't get the kind of taxpayer help the airlines received.
"There should have been every reason, particularly given the bailout money for the airlines, to prepare for the surge we're seeing now. This money was for a very specific purpose," Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia delegate in Congress, told Politico. Norton wants hearings to examine the question of whether that funding, instead of benefiting the flying public, mainly benefited the shareholders.
In the Senate, plans for such hearings next month are already underway, with senators like Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., suggesting the airlines are "failing to keep their side of the bargain." The airlines will have the chance to make their case ― but the best way they could make it is to ensure the coming holiday travel season avoids more of this kind of turbulence.
This editorial appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was distributed by Tribune Content Agency.