Mike Lee opposes new pandemic aid package for airlines

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) Delta passengers wait to board their flight in the new terminal at the Salt Lake City International Airport on Sept. 15, 2020. Sen. Mike Lee opposes a new stand-alone relief bill for airlines.

Utah Sen. Mike Lee is trying to prevent the take-off of another round of relief for airlines, which say they will need to lay off tens of thousands of employees without it.

That comes after President Donald Trump earlier this week tweeted that he would be willing to sign a $25 billion stand-alone aid package for airlines as soon as Congress gives him one.

But Lee, who is chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, joined Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., in a statement saying that an airline-only aid bill would be inappropriate. Instead of seeking grants, they urged airlines instead to seek loans made available by earlier relief packages.

“Rather than collect another round of grant funding, airlines should start (or in some cases continue to) take advantage of the low-interest, long-term loans from the federal government under the CARES Act,” the senators wrote. “The favorable terms of these loans will make it possible for the airlines to repay the taxpayers once air travel picks back up.”

Lee and Toomey said taxpayers have spent $25 billion covering the payroll of passenger airlines during the pandemic.

“No other Fortune 500 companies — including restaurant groups, transportation firms, hotel chains, or entertainment businesses — have received taxpayer-funded grants,” they wrote. “The excess capacity of the airline sector will not be resolved in the near future and continuing to force the entire payroll obligation onto the taxpayers is not sustainable.”

The senators added that no one wants to see layoffs, but they say they have a responsibility to ensure that taxes are used responsibly.

“Consideration of legislation providing grants to the airlines should not happen unless there are adequate protections for taxpayers and the opportunity to offer related amendments” that could help other industries, Lee and Toomey wrote.

In contrast to Lee’s opposition, Sen. Mitt Romney is among senators who introduced relief legislation for the airlines.

“Keeping airlines flying is essential to our collective economic recovery — the @slcairport was booming and experiencing record growth in passengers before #COVID19,” Romney tweeted when the bill was introduced. “Our bill would extend support to prevent massive layoffs and ensure airline workers continue receiving paychecks.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week had called on airlines to hold off furloughs while she tried to move such a stand-alone bill, but it was blocked in the House.

Then Trump said this week he was pulling the plug on negotiations for more pandemic aid, but later softened that — including saying he would sign airline relief if passed.

Before the pandemic, the Salt Lake City International Airport served about 26 million people a year — but was designed to handle only 10 million. Airport statistics for July, the most recent full month available, show the number of passengers that month was down in Salt Lake by 65% amid the pandemic

Delta Air Lines, which currently provides about 70% of the passenger service at Salt Lake City International Airport and has about 4,000 employees locally, said recently that it is facing “grim economic times” as the pandemic continues.

It said that it is avoiding involuntary furloughs for most of its employees through next spring — but is doing that by extending a 25% work-hour reduction for ground-based merit and front-line employees through the end of the year, plus using savings from scaled-back operations and from 20% of its employees exiting voluntarily.