This week I was sitting on a Southwest Airlines flight from New Orleans to New York, reading how the government has questions for airline executives. The government had summoned these executives to appear on Capitol Hill and answer their questions, most of which concerned the massive bailout the industry enjoyed last year. The bailout saved them after their business fell more than 80% when the pandemic swept the world and kept us all on the ground.
The airline industry has started to recover and, of course, wants to keep its profits after forgiving taxpayers their debts. I was intrigued by this story of economic socialism in the private sector. I was distracted from my diary app by the incessant chatter coming from the speakers all around the plane. The flight attendant made all the usual announcements about seat belts and life jackets, but he made them stand out with his verbal frills and, it’s no exaggeration to say, adding full anecdotes as well. One of my favorite things in the world is finding a wild card in the pack, someone who goes through their day as usual but also does it a bit. So I paid attention and laughed as he said, “Now as soon as we’re rolling I’m on a break. I’m up to my feet, can you hear me? So put it down. your questions now. “
He explained how the oxygen masks worked and how it was essential to secure your own before dealing with another passenger, and he said: “And don’t forget to help others unless my ex -Girlfriend Tracey won’t be here. No sir, we’re ‘you’re gonna let that turkey suffer! “
The latter was a bit too much for me, but I appreciated that he made an effort to be funny. I wondered if he had quit his job during the pandemic. Many airline employees did so, despite the bailout. Back in the early days of panic of 2020, as it became clear that the industry would be one of the first victims of the pandemic, with travel bans and no vaccines in sight, the US Department of Transportation is put to work in response to increasingly desperate appeals. by airlines and unions. The government has defined a “large passenger airline” as one with annual operating revenues in excess of $ 1 billion. Ten of these airlines have received more than $ 50 billion in Payroll Support Program (PSP) grants.
The industry was secure for now, and they handed what looked like IOUs to the Treasury Department. The official title is “promissory notes” which indicated that the airlines would reimburse the government $ 14 billion in the future. It’s a guarantee, and they’ve also given taxpayers millions of stock warrants, which give the government the ability to buy airline stocks at a fixed price. The money was a bailout, not a loan, given with no expectation that it would be recovered but that the industry and its workers would be saved from decimation. The airlines requested financial aid twice more, securing an extension of the payroll support program in December 2020. In March of this year, the industry was again bolstered by the coronavirus assistance program plus important to the Biden administration. According to a Washington Post analysis of Treasury Department data, those stock deals are now worth around $ 260 million. That’s less than 1% of the $ 37 billion the US government gave these ten airlines last year precisely to help pay their workers.
Back on my flight from New Orleans, I felt guilty for being on a plane. Everything we humans do, from what we eat and the way we dress to the way we travel, releases greenhouse gases. These gases, like carbon dioxide, force the climate to change and the planet to warm up. The BBC reports that “about 2.4% of global CO2 emissions come from aviation. Along with other gases and the water vapor trails produced by airplanes, industry is responsible for about 5% of global warming”.
This is caused by a disproportionate number of people, and most of us are in the richer Global North. This exacerbates the injustice of climate chaos because the places most affected are the countries of the South; people there suffer more than we do. I’ve reduced my time in the air as much as possible, but because of work trips and trips to see family, I always contribute more than my fair share to shows. I understand that taking personal responsibility for climate chaos is reductive and misleading, given that governments and businesses are by far the worst offenders. About 100 fossil fuel investors and state-owned companies are responsible for about 70 percent of historic GHG emissions worldwide. My actions alone will not turn this ship or plane around. That said, individual steps are still needed, as are societal standards and expectations of what is okay to do.
The term “flygskam” is Swedish for “shameful flight” and tågskryt meaning “boasting” and att smygflyga meaning “stealing in secret” have all become part of the lexicon there.
Wednesday on Capitol Hill, there was nothing close to the “flygskam”. Instead, pride and complacency was evident among airline executives as they were asked about the bailout by broadly supportive lawmakers. The issue of carbon emissions was not raised; the hottest question came from Rep. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas. The vaccinated lawmaker rebuked the United Airlines CEO for commissioning a company-wide COVID-19 vaccine, calling the mandate “deeply disturbing.” economy but also extremely polluting and wasteful, the American government missed the opportunity to change it for the better. Instead, just like the government does with the billion-dollar fossil fuel industries each year, they subsidized and saved the industry. The pandemic has put this industry and the emissions that will happen to all of us in the form of global warming on hiatus, but now it’s speeding back.
As my own flight landed at JFK and I disembarked broodingly, the flight attendant happily wished me happy holidays, her eyes narrowed on her mask. I smiled, a genuine smile under my own mask.