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World’s airlines push for $200 billion in emergency aid. ‘We are suffering, we are struggling. We are bleeding.’

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — The International Air Transport Association, the largest trade group for airlines, is calling for emergency aid of up to $200 billion for airlines globally as the coronavirus pandemic shuts down air travel worldwide.

In the U.S., Airlines for America, a trade group for the biggest U.S. passenger and cargo carriers, is asking the federal government for $29 billion in grants, up to another $29 billion in loans, and at least two years of tax relief. However, the package has met with opposition from some Senate Republicans who say they oppose corporate bailouts, and from Democrats who want to put conditions such as consumer protections in any deal.

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Before the crisis, U.S. airlines carried about 2.5 million passengers and 58,000 tons of cargo a day. Airlines for America said U.S. carriers are burning through cash as cancellations outstrip new bookings and planes are only 20% to 30% full.

An airline worker stands in an empty terminal at the airport of Barcelona, Spain, on March 19, 2020. Airlines around the world have announced tens of thousands of job cuts as the coronavirus pandemic, and efforts to contain it, slash demand for air travel.
An airline worker stands in an empty terminal at the airport of Barcelona, Spain, on March 19, 2020. Airlines around the world have announced tens of thousands of job cuts as the coronavirus pandemic, and efforts to contain it, slash demand for air travel. (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

Airlines around the world have announced tens of thousands of job cuts already, including 7,300 at Norwegian Air alone, while UK airline Flybe collapsed with a loss of 2,000 jobs.

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Germany’s Lufthansa said that airlines may fail without government assistance if the outbreak lasts for an extended time. The airline has already slashed routes and frozen new hires. Lufthansa said members of its executive board also decided to take a 20% cut in basic pay for 2020.

The IATA, which represents around 290 airlines worldwide, says 16,000 passenger flights have been cancelled in the Middle East alone since the end of January.

“A lot of jobs are at risk, economies of the nations are being impacted and airline business in the Middle East is taking a big hit,” Muhammad Albakri, IATA’s regional vice president for Africa and the Middle East, said in a phone conference with reporters.

Seven Middle Eastern countries have suspended all commercial flights due to the fast-spreading new coronavirus, and the IATA announced Thursday that airlines in the region have already lost more than $7 billion in revenue.

Already, major carriers like Emirates have urged pilots and cabin crew to take unpaid leave. Reports have emerged that Qatar Airways laid off several hundred employees. The airline did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Job losses in the Middle East have especially far-reaching consequences to the millions of foreign workers who send remittances back home to families in India, Pakistan, the Philippines and eastern European countries. Gulf states like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates rely heavily on foreigners to work as airport support staff, pilots, cleaners and cabin crew.

Since February, Israeli national carrier El Al has laid off 1,000 employees and put another 5,500 on unpaid vacation, "almost all" of its staff, company spokesman Eitan Atias told the AP. It has reduced its flights from 47 destinations globally to just six: New York, Newark, Paris, London, Toronto and Johannesburg.

“We are suffering, we are struggling. We are bleeding," Albakri said in his most urgent appeal yet to governments to step in and help many of these state-owned airlines by cutting taxes and offering direct financial assistance.

On Thursday, Egypt and Lebanon became the latest two countries in the Middle East to shut down airports and suspend all passenger flights, joining Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco.

Albakri said international bookings are down 40% for Mideast airlines and domestic bookings are also similarly impacted. The loss of $7.2 billion in revenue as of March 11 is in comparison to last year's revenue at the same time, he said.

In Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, some 138,000 jobs are immediately at risk and $1 billion in airline revenue has been lost, according to IATA.

In Saudi Arabia, which suspended the year-round Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, $3 billion in revenue has been lost in the aviation industry, and more than 140,000 people could lose their jobs.

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Albakri said another 163,000 people are at risk of losing their jobs in the United Arab Emirates, home to the region’s biggest carrier Emirates and the world’s busiest airport for international travel in Dubai. The UAE’s airlines have absorbed $2.8 billion in base revenue loss, Albakri said.

Karimi reported from Tehran. The AP’s Sarah El Deeb in Beirut; Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, Pakistan; Noha ElHennawy in Cairo; Samya Kullab in Baghdad; and Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed.

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