Three months before, Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-C.W.A., received a call from a veteran flight attendant that has been operating for twenty five decades and that has continued to operate throughout the coronavirus pandemic. “He loves flying, he loves his career,” Nelson advised me lately. During a trip to Los Angeles, the flight attendant told her, he’d had a panic attack triggered by the chance he could contract the virus and become seriously sick. During the layover, he moved into his hotel room and sheltered set up. He had been too afraid to leave his room and couldn’t go out to find food. Room service looked possibly harmful, and there was no access to a microwave at the hotel, which meant he had no place to warm the soup that he had in his luggage. He finished up terrified, alone and isolated, eating the soup cold, right from the can.“He’s been through all this before,” Nelson continued. She noticed that the flight had been operating on September 11, 2001, when terrorist attacks sent the airline industry to tragedy, and, he, like many others, lost his retirement and took a decrease in pay. “And here we are again,” Nelson stated, noting that employees are currently facing similar hardships. “This has been real whiplash for people. It’s hard. There are a lot of people who went into work and they felt like they were doing a real service to the country, and they were. And there were other people who were high-risk, and couldn’t go to work, but also didn’t know how they were going to pay their bills.” She began to choke up.Early from the pandemic, when nearly all aviation had abruptly ceased, President Donald Trump and the Secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchin, talked about the airline business in a media conference. “This is worse than 9/11. They are almost ground to a halt,” Mnuchin explained. He added that, regardless of the fact there was no passenger need, it was significant that airlines still offer service to each portion of the nation. “Although we don’t want people to travel unless it’s critical, we want to maintain, for critical travel, the right to have domestic travel.” He’d only met with the C.E.O.s of the biggest airlines, also, although he wouldn’t talk particularly about the capacity for a government bailout of the business, he stated that airlines were important and employed a great deal of workers, including, “We’ll be working with Congress on this.” President Trump leaned into the mike and explained, “The airline industry will be in good shape.”In March, Congress passed the CARES Act, a two-trillion-dollar coronavirus bailout package, which put apart fifty million bucks to the airline sector: twenty-five billion it had been to get government-backed loans, to be drawn down if desired, and the remainder went toward a payroll-support plan that could be distributed as grants meant to conserve passenger-airline jobs. Each participating airline obtained seventy-six percent of its payroll costs from the center of 2019. (Portions of these grants should be repaid within a five-day interval, and the authorities will get warrants, a kind of equity ownership in the airways, for ten percent of their grant value.) “The business fell off a cliff,” Nelson told me. “Literally fell off a cliff. And if there had not been a shoring up right then, the vast majority of airlines would have filed for bankruptcy. And the public would have lost any sort of control of how the airline industry would look at the other end of this.”In exchange for its help, the airlines agreed to strict conditions. They’re banned from participating in stock buybacks or issuing dividends through September, 2021. Executive compensation during the period when the company is accepting aid is limited to compensation levels from 2019. Companies were also prohibited from laying off workers for six months, a provision that will end on September 30th. Like other parts of the bailout that were intended to salvage jobs, such as the Paycheck Protection Program, the airline assistance largely worked the short term. “We submitted our own relief plan that was focussed on workers, and that’s what we achieved: a workers-first package, the first ever in this country, formatted to go directly to the workers,” Nelson said. Most airline workers lost around twenty-five per cent of take-home pay, but the program “kept people on the job, connected to our health care, all of that.” Now, after accepting millions in bailout money, several airlines, including United and American Airlines, have announced that, after the deadline expires in the fall, they will cut thousands of jobs. As Congress debates another rescue package, Nelson and other union leaders representing airline workers are fighting to extend the program by another six months, through March of 2021. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are hanging in the balance.Nelson has blond hair and large, blue eyes, and is often photographed in a crisp flight-attendants’ uniform. She grew up in Oregon, the daughter of a lumber worker and a music teacher. After graduating from college, with forty-five thousand dollars in student debt, she applied, in 1996, to work as a flight attendant at United. (The six-week training program included instructions on the proper application of makeup.) She quickly distinguished herself as a vocal supporter of workers’ rights, and, in 2010, she was elected vice-president of the A.F.A., a union representing fifty thousand flight attendants at twenty different airlines. In 2014, she became the union’s president, which has placed her at the center of the worst crisis the airline industry has faced in decades.As the pandemic took hold, in the winter and early spring, air travel dropped by around ninety-seven per cent; it crept up slightly in May, as things seemed to improve and stay-at-home orders across the country were loosened. But business only reached a peak of around twenty-five per cent of pre-pandemic amounts, at the end of June, and then began to flatten again, as it became clear that the pandemic was far from over, at least in the United States. The Trump Administration has not taken strong action to curb the spread of the virus, leading to ongoing outbreaks across the country. This has amounted to a form of economic self-sabotage: the Trump Administration’s lack of leadership has undermined the benefits of the costly economic bailouts that Congress passed, insuring that even more money will have to be spent in the future. If the Administration had managed to get the spread of the virus under control by midsummer, the ongoing need for aggressive government bailouts would have been less severe than it currently is.Nelson and other union leaders have been circulating a letter to members of Congress, urging them to pass the proposed extension of the airline- worker payroll protections. “Air travel remains a slight fraction of last year’s levels and demand will remain depressed well into next year,” the letter reads. “Aviation workers account for 5% of the nation’s GDP. Should October 1 arrive without extending the PSP grant job program mass layoffs are inevitable, as airline executives have acknowledged. Hundreds of thousands of workers will lose their jobs and health insurance— not only in aviation, but across our entire economy.” A majority of members of the House appear to support the idea. But, on July 27th, Senate Republicans released a draft bill that did not contain any provisions related to extending the payments for airline employees.