Cantwell wrote that she is “concerned that, at best,” the airlines “poorly managed its marketing of flights and workforce as more people are traveling, and, at worst, it failed to meet the intent of tax payer funding and prepare for the surge in travel that we are now witnessing.”
The senator also requested a staff briefing from each of the airlines by the end of the month.
At the industry’s request, Congress created the Payroll Support Program to provide loans to airlines to support the pay and benefits of workers. The three rounds of billions in federal payroll support for the airline industry barred layoffs, involuntary furloughs or pay cuts for employees.
Now, with majority of Americans vaccinated and the country reopening, leisure flights and bookings are returning to pre-pandemic levels and airlines have begun calling back workers who had been on voluntary leave.
Southwest last month canceled or delayed thousands of flights — the most of any US airline — saying that its schedules and staffing have also been thrown off by the growing demand and weather.
“This reported workforce shortage runs counter to the objective and spirit of the (Payroll Support Program), which was to enable airlines to endure the pandemic and keep employees on payroll so that the industry was positioned to capture a rebound in demand,” Cantwell wrote in her letters. She added that the “disruptions in air travel have harmed U.S. consumers just as the American economy is rebounding, and the existing airline workforce is being placed under immense pressure to meet demand.”
CNN has reached out to the airlines for comment on the letters.
In a statement to CNN, Southwest said it is “staffed for what we’re flying and we’re flying for what we staffed.”
“We’re fortunate to be the only major airline to maintain service at every U.S. airport we served prior to the pandemic, and to have utilized Congressional Payroll Support to maintain staffing (continuing a 50-year history of no layoffs, no furloughs) to support both that continual service, and the flight schedule we built for the summer of 2021,” the company said.
The company reiterated that last month’s “unusually high number” of flight delays and cancellations was due to “prolonged and widespread thunderstorms, infrastructure challenges and unrelated challenges with technology.”
CNN’s Chris Isidore, Rashard Rose, Gregory Wallace and Pete Muntean contributed to this report.