POLITICS

Airline Union Leader To Push For New Climate Rules Amid Fight Over Bailout

As airline layoffs mount due to the coronavirus' unprecedented economic shock, the influential Association of Flight Attendants plans to push for emissions cuts.

The union leader representing the nation’s flight attendants is calling for federal aid to the aviation industry to require airlines to cut climate-changing pollution, she told HuffPost Friday. 

The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) already listed “green infrastructure investments” in a two-page memo the union drafted. The memo includes the union’s priorities for any relief money Congress provides the air travel industry as it grapples with the historic economic shock from the new coronavirus pandemic. 

Sara Nelson, the union’s chief who is widely considered a front-runner to be the next leader of the AFL-CIO, said she would recommend new rules to require the airlines ― a fast-growing source of planet-heating emissions ― to adopt additional measures aimed at reducing fossil fuel use.

The proposals, which have not yet been unveiled, would likely include requiring airlines to ramp up use of “sustainable fuels,” which are typically made from plants or algae; improve fuel efficiency; and increase transparency on the amount of carbon dioxide emissions associated with each flight. 

Nelson said she was working directly with Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives on a legislative proposal that would include at least some of those provisions. 

“There will be standards that are included in the airline relief package,” she said in a phone interview. “There’s just not really disagreement around the fact that there needs to be.” 

That this is a priority at all for a union leader highlights the extent to which labor and environmental activists, once considered to be at odds with each other, are finding common ground as climate change rapidly worsens and proposals to cut emissions emphasize green jobs. Extreme heat is already preventing planes from taking off, and warming-fueled changes in the jet stream cause dangerous turbulence in the air. Last summer, the AFA-CWA became one of the first national unions to endorse the Green New Deal, a framework for rapidly reducing fossil fuel use and transitioning workers to good-paying new jobs. 

For now, triaging the present crisis for workers remains the urgent priority in the fast-moving congressional process, Nelson said, cautioning that the strictness of pollution standards “might change a little bit.” 

Senate Republicans on Thursday night released a draft of a bailout bill that would give passenger airlines the $50 billion in loans and loan guarantees the industry requested earlier this week. The AFA-CWA demanded that federal aid strictly limit benefits to executives and shareholders, and require companies to keep workers employed amid the economic turmoil unfolding as public officials scramble to contain the new virus. 

Nelson staked out the union’s priorities in a five-minute video posted to Twitter on Tuesday. By Friday afternoon, the video had more than 175,000 views. 

Any focus on cutting airline emissions is sure to gain support from environmentalists. Airlines make up less than 3% of global emissions, but United Nations forecasts show that percentage going up dramatically in the coming years. Recent research suggests that the U.N. estimates may be conservative, and that emissions are likely to surge 1.5% faster than previously expected. 

Yet even amid a movement aiming to “flight shame” travelers into choosing lower-emissions forms of transportation, such as trains, airlines have slashed the amount of money spent on research and development and failed to keep fuel efficiency abreast of increased air travel. The Trump administration, meanwhile, has focused federal efforts on reviving the defunct super-polluting turbojet industry, even as Canada and European countries invested in hybrid and electric planes. 

“Everyone agrees this industry has to reboot toward sustainability,” said Dan Rutherford, the aviation director at the nonprofit International Council on Clean Transportation. “Whatever government support does come down the pike, we hope it can take these environmental considerations into effect and not just reboot the status quo.”

 
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