By David Shepardson and Tracy Rucinski
WASHINGTON/CHICAGO, Sept 22 (Reuters) - Major U.S. airlines plan to make a last-ditch bid to persuade Congress to grant them a new $25 billion bailout to help avert thousands of employee furloughs set to begin Oct. 1, even as a separate $25 billion in government loans for the sector sits untapped.
The chief executives of American Airlines AAL.O, United Airlines UAL.O and JetBlue Airways JBLU.O and major aviation unions were scheduled to hold a news conference on Capitol Hill on Tuesday afternoon calling for a six-month extension of a payroll support program that consisted primarily of grants in exchange for keeping workers on the payroll.
On Monday, two key Republican senators introduced legislation that would authorize another $25.5 billion in payroll assistance for passenger airlines, but congressional aides said it was unlikely to win passage given aid requests from many other struggling industries.
The first $25 billion in payroll assistance to airlines was included under the $2.3 trillion CARES Act aid package in March, which also set aside another $25 billion in government loans for airlines.
The Treasury Department signed letters of intent in July with 10 major airlines for the loans, which they can tap by Sept. 30. According to Treasury, none of those loans have been funded.
Only American Airlines has said it intends to take the loans, which carry restrictions on share buybacks and executive compensation.
Airlines for America, a trade representing major U.S. airlines, said passenger volumes remain down approximately 70%, a third of the U.S. fleet is idled and the industry continues to lose $5 billion in cash per month.
"We are running out of time to protect the jobs and livelihoods of these men and women. We urgently need for Congress to act now," the group said.
Representative Jim Himes, a Democrat, said at a hearing Tuesday that taxpayers should be fairly compensated for the use of government funds to support private businesses. He said that on a call with lawmakers, he proposed requiring more taxpayer compensation for airline support and that faced opposition from labor unions and airlines.
The industry message, Himes said, was, "If you make the money cost anything, they won't take it and they will fire us. That feels to me like a hostage situation. 'Give me the money for free or we not take it and we will fire people.'"
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the government "got proper compensation for taxpayers" in the airline assistance packages, which required major airlines to repay 30% of the grants and issue warrants.
Democrats have insisted that additional funds for airlines should be part of a broader bill that helps other struggling sectors like public transit and restaurants.
The American Bus Association, for example, asked Congress on Tuesday to help sectors like the motorcoach industry "that received no direct assistance through the CARES Act before it provides a second round of direct assistance to other transportation sectors, such as the airlines."
(Reporting by David Shepardson and Tracy Rucinski; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)
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