Airlines, Amtrak to lay off thousands

Photo: © Dan Zukowski

Can we be nostalgic for something that happened just six months ago? That’s when I boarded this aircraft at Hollywood Burbank Airport for my flight home to Boston. I haven’t flown since.

It was a brief three-night stay at the beginning of March that included handshakes, no masks and dinner in a restaurant crowded shoulder-to-shoulder. COVID-19 was “over there” — in Wuhan, China, an outbreak in Italy and aboard a cruise ship in Japan.

We now know that the novel coronavirus was circulating in the U.S. much earlier than March. The first fatality due to COVID-19 in California was on January 26, while an international conference in Boston in late February initially infected more than 70 of the 175 attendees and ultimately spread to 20,000 individuals.

California declared a state of emergency the very day I departed.

While I don’t yet feel comfortable flying, I am looking forward to the day I get back on a plane to Los Angeles, or somewhere. Anywhere. But when I do, there will be fewer planes in the air and many fewer people working for the airlines.

Transportation job losses mount

Many airlines now expect that it will be anywhere from three to five years before travel returns to pre-pandemic levels. They’ve already downsized from older, larger aircraft — Boeing 747 and Airbus 380 models — to newer, smaller, more fuel efficient planes that will save operating costs and be easier to fill with passengers.

As the pandemic took hold, some airlines offered voluntary furlough and early retirement programs to employees, including flight and cabin crews. The CARES Act enabled U.S. airlines to keep paying many who otherwise would have been laid off, but that support expires at the end of September.

Even with that, the air transportation industry lost more than one in five jobs from March through August, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Now, without additional relief, American Airlines plans up to 19,000 job cuts beginning Oct. 1, United 16,000. Delta, Hawaiian, Spirit and Alaska Airlines have all warned of furloughs.

Amtrak also announced layoffs this week, including 1,950 union workers and some 100 salaried managers.

The situation is equally dire for transit systems across the U.S.

Speaking at a transit industry conference last week, Michael Goldman, on the Board of Directors of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, said, “We expect that by December-January we will have to make some significant reductions in order to keep a balanced budget” as it exhausts its share of CARES Act funding.

The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority says up to 8,400 layoffs are possible. It may be forced to cut commuter service in half, and bus and subway operations by 40 percent. Chicago’s commuter railroad, Metra, says it is looking at all options to plug its financial hole.

Washington politicos are, at present, out of alignment on another stimulus package. The House anted $3.4 trillion back in May, the Senate put down $1.1 trillion and Trump wagered $1.3 trillion. So far, no one has shown their hand.

With all eyes on Nov. 3, it’s likely something will get done in the upcoming weeks, but the dollar sign may not reach the trillions and it’s unclear if airlines, Amtrak or transit systems will see even the plug nickel that would have bought you a subway ride in New York for 44 straight years.