(Reuters) — The leaders of two congressional committees want a federal investigation into whether airlines used government pandemic money to fund pilot buyouts and early retirements that may have fueled current pilot shortages, according to a letter released on Friday.
Congress approved $54 billion in three installments to cover a large portion of U.S. airline payroll costs for 18 months ending in September 2021. Airlines that accepted government aid that funded payroll costs were prohibited from laying off or firing workers and faced limits on compensation for executives and prohibition of share buybacks and dividends.
Major airlines, after losing thousands of employees during the pandemic, now have more pilots than before COVID-19 and fly fewer flights but face higher absenteeism rates due to Covid cases. Regional airlines are still struggling to hire enough pilots, while airlines are cutting back on flights this summer to improve performance.
“As a result of the pilot shortage, thousands of flights have been delayed or canceled, wreaking havoc on the travel plans of millions of American taxpayers,” House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney and House Select Committee Chairman James Clyburn wrote in a Sept. 8 statement. letter to the Ministry of Finance’s Inspector General.
The committee wants the inspector general to “complete a thorough review of the federal funding Treasury has disbursed to airlines to sustain their operations during the coronavirus pandemic, including an accounting of how the funds were disbursed and used by each airline recipient.”
A group representing major airlines did not immediately comment.
Of the $54 billion, airlines must repay $14 billion, or 26.2%. American Airlines received $12.6 billion, Delta Air Lines $11.9 billion, United Airlines $10.9 billion and Southwest Airlines $7.2 billion, according to a US Senate panel.
US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is facing pressure from Congress to do more to hold airlines accountable for tens of thousands of flight cancellations and delays this summer.
A group of 36 state attorneys general on Aug. 31 called on Congress to give them new authority to investigate passenger complaints. Democratic senators Elizabeth Warren and Alex Padilla have called on the Transportation Department to fine airlines that delay or cancel flights due to staffing or operational problems.