Lawmakers want Delta's request to stop Kalamazoo, Lansing and Flint flights grounded

Keith Laing
The Detroit News

Washington — Several members of the Michigan Congressional delegation are pushing the Trump administration to reject Delta Air Lines’ request to temporarily cancel flight service to Kalamazoo, Lansing and Flint because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Delta has asked the U.S. Department of Transportation for permission to drop the Michigan airports and six other small airports in other states because the airline says the number of people flying in and out of those cities is fewer than 10 per day.

The airline argues that the few who are flying can drive to airports less than 75 miles away: Flint passengers can drive to Detroit, and those from Lansing and Kalamazoo can drive to Grand Rapids.

In a letter to U.S. Department of Transportation Assistant Secretary for Aviation and International Affairs Joel Szabat, U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, and U.S. Reps. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, Dan Kildee, D-Flint, and Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, said the request from the airline should be rejected because of the $5.4 billion bailout that Delta has received from the federal government. 

The airline argues that the few who are flying can drive to airports less than 75 miles away: Flint passengers can drive to Detroit, and those from Lansing and Kalamazoo can drive to Grand Rapids.

The lawmakers wrote Delta's request "does not comport with Congress’ intent to preserve aviation service ... , does not sufficiently take into account new measures being deployed by airports, airlines, and governments to protect employees and public health, and does not adequately provide for an on-ramp back to service.

"The substantial financial assistance to the aviation sector, including airlines, and airports in the CARES Act was predicated on support for aviation sector employees and the continuation of service that is a benefit to all air-traveling customers," the lawmakers wrote. "The exemptions proposed for Michigan airports would undermine this intent."

Delta, which has a major hub at Detroit Metro Airport, is coming off a $534 million loss in the first three months of the year, compared to a $730 million profit a year ago. The airline has framed its request as an effort to protect workers at smaller airports from unnecessary exposure to the pandemic. 

"These proposed changes will help reduce the number of our frontline employees at risk of exposure, while ensuring convenient access to Delta’s network for those who must travel," the airline said in a statement when the application was filed. 

Permission from the federal government is necessary because airlines received a $25 billion bailout as part of the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief measure passed in March by Congress. Conditions of that aid require airlines to maintain schedules that are similar to their pre-March flight levels "to the extent reasonable and practicable." Congress made that stipulation because it wanted to make sure emergency workers could fly if they needed to respond to a crisis.

“They should continue those flights," Peters said in a Friday interview. "We provided, as you know, a considerable amount of money from the federal government to keep the airlines afloat and maintain service because it’s important to maintain service. We’re going to ask some more questions about that. They are claiming safety issues.”

The aid measure also requires airlines that receive assistance to refrain from conducting involuntary furloughs or reducing pay rates and benefits until Sept. 30. That means for now, at least, workers are getting their paychecks whether or not there's anything for them to do. That is almost certain to change come Oct. 1.

Detroit Metro Airport got a $141.8 million piece of the relief money. It will be used to help meet "most immediate needs, including debt service payments and operating expenses," airport officials said.

Another $114 million was split between 89 smaller airports in Michigan, with the second-largest amount, $19.1 million, going to Kalamazoo. Capital Region International in Lansing received $10.3 million and Bishop International in Flint received $7.2 million.

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing

Staff writer Melissa Nann-Burke contributed to this report.