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Just a few weeks ago, America’s airline industry was flying high, fueled by consumers spending their surging  discretionary income on travel. Things were so good that Delta Airlines celebrated a solid annual performance by paying out $1.6 billion in bonuses to its 90,000 employees at the end of January.

The rapid advance of the COVID-19 virus has changed all that. Passenger traffic has plummeted. Planes are flying half full or less, and airports are nearly empty, despite efforts to calm travelers with intense cleaning of aircraft and terminals.

American Airlines is cutting 30% of its flights in April; Delta, the largest carrier at Detroit-Wayne County Metropolitan Airport, by 70% and United Airlines by 60%. Up to three-quarters of international flights have been grounded as the federal government warns against foreign travel. Steep reductions to the the aviation industry’s 750,000 workforce are inevitable if relief doesn't come soon.   

Not since the days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks has the industry faced such a grave threat to its viability.

Airlines are asking for federal help, and they should get it. The economic damage done by COVID-19 will be multiplied if one or more of the airlines collapses during this period of isolation.

Congress is considering today the Aviation Workforce Stability Act to sustain the industry through the crisis. The bill would provided $25 billion in grants for passenger carriers and $4 billion for cargo operators.

It would also provide the same amounts in unsecured loans and loan guarantees to help cover operational expenses until travel patterns return to normal.

Airlines also are seeking relief from excise taxes paid into the federal Airport and Airway Trust fund for the rest of the year, and a refund of what has been paid since Jan. 1. 

Other excise taxes on tickets, fuel, etc. would also be repealed. Those taxes fund the Federal Aviation Authority and provide infrastructure grants to airports. 

In the meantime, the airlines are rushing to slash expenses. Delta CEO Ed Bastian, for example, is working without pay for six months, and all other officers of the airline are taking a three month salary cut of 50%. The airline has not furloughed any of its employees.

Aviation is a critical industry. America's recovery from the COVID-19 economic slowdown will rely on the ability of airlines to fully resume the movement of goods and people when the virus ebbs.

Congress should move this bill. And its combination of grants, loans and tax relief should serve as a model for aiding other critical industries that are being ravaged by COVID-19. 

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