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COVID-19 Relief Package Includes Billions For Transportation Sector

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

All right. How often did you fly or maybe ride the train or bus during the pandemic? Yeah, the transportation sector has been hit hard. But anyone who rides in trains, planes or automobiles should benefit from the $1.9 trillion COVID relief package. NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: It was a year ago this week that the U.S. went on lockdown. Highways and airports were suddenly almost deserted. People traveling overseas scrambled to get flights home, and mass transit and trains ran nearly empty. In the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., 46-year-old Sandra Vigil had been driving buses packed with 60 to 70 people or more.

SANDRA VIGIL: We ended up taking - towards the end of March, it was like one, two people per ride if you had any people at all.

SCHAPER: Last March 29, Vigil says she and about 95% of her Loudoun County Transit co-workers were furloughed. Hers lasted 4 1/2 months, and unemployment wasn't enough to make ends meet.

VIGIL: A lot of us fell behind on our rent or car payments because it was either eating or paying the car or paying the rent and not paying the electric bill.

SCHAPER: Transit systems across the country saw ridership plummet 90% or more, and revenue fell with it. Yet mass transit is essential, especially for many low-wage workers. Again, bus driver Sandra Vigil.

VIGIL: In order to keep the buses running and to keep us working, we needed this money.

SCHAPER: The relief bill includes $30 billion for transit. It also includes $1.7 billion for Amtrak, enough to bring 1,200 furloughed employees back to work and restore daily service on long-distance routes. And there's funding to help states continue fixing crumbling roads and bridges, offsetting their lost gas tax revenue. As for airlines...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOUG PARKER: I have fantastic news to share.

SCHAPER: That's American Airlines CEO Doug Parker in a video message to employees about the plan, which includes another $14 billion in payroll support. That's good news for the 13,000 American employees who were facing furloughs April 1.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PARKER: So if you had one of those WARN Act notices we sent out in February, tear it up. There aren't going to be any furloughs at American Airlines in April - and with vaccinations on the rise, hopefully never again.

SCHAPER: CEO Parker says the last three weeks have been the airline's best since the pandemic hit, with bookings and passenger volumes both up. That's happening at other airlines, too, so much so that after months of hemorrhaging tens of millions of dollars a day, the CEOs of Delta and United now expect to reduce their daily cash burn to zero this month or next, while Southwest is on track to break even by June. Of course, that's relatively easy to do when taxpayers are essentially covering much of your payroll. Airlines have now received more than $50 billion in federal payroll grants since the start of the pandemic.

DENNIS TAJER: This was hugely important.

SCHAPER: Dennis Tajer is a pilot for American Airlines and spokesman for the pilots union.

TAJER: The last thing we wanted to be is on our heels when everybody was ready to get back flying.

SCHAPER: Tajer says if pilots had been furloughed, they'd need weeks, if not months of training before being able to fly passengers again.

TAJER: You do not want to be staring at the recovery and turning around and seeing the flight deck empty because you weren't able to train the pilots quickly enough.

SCHAPER: Joe Schwieterman, a transportation professor at Chicago's DePaul University, says all this government aid is crucial.

JOE SCHWIETERMAN: It's pretty clear that the airlines were in such a dire strait that without federal assistance in a big way, we would have lost an airline or two.

SCHAPER: Schwieterman says the federal aid helps airlines, Amtrak, transit agencies and highway departments continue critical operations while adapting to a post-COVID world, a world that will likely lead to more operational changes in the near future.

David Schaper, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAN MOUNTAIN'S "ILLUMINATION RINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.