Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said Tuesday that the coronavirus outbreak has been “worse than 9/11” for U.S. airlines.
“I’ve had discussions with all the airline CEOs this week. The airline CEOs have had conversations with the Senate and the House,” Mnuchin said at a White House press briefing. “I think, as you know, this is worse than 9/11. For the airline industry, they are almost ground to a halt.”
“The president wants to make sure that 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 continued.
President Donald Trump, who was standing next to Mnuchin at the podium along with his top coronavirus advisers, added: “The airline industry will be in good shape.”
Mnuchin also said the Trump administration supports the airline industry’s public request for $50 billion in economic relief as part of a broader economic stimulus package.
The White House has asked Congress to authorize large-scale federal stimulus spending to address the economic fallout from the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus. According to reports sourced to anonymous officials, Trump has pushed for around $850 million.
How do coronavirus and 9/11 really compare for United Airlines?
In the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, al-Qaeda operatives hijacked four airplanes operated by United Airlines and American Airlines. Two planes were used to take down the World Trade Center and another crashed into the Pentagon. Nearly 3,000 people died, including all of the passengers, making 9/11 the deadliest terrorist attack in history.
Following the attacks, the U.S. airline industry saw unprecedented losses in passenger traffic as well as financially. United Airlines and American Airlines were among a number of carriers that were forced to declare bankruptcy.
Mnuchin’s invocation of the tragedy echoed a letter sent to him and congressional leaders on Monday by the CEO of United Airlines.
Oscar Munoz, who is slated to step down in May, said his airline was in urgent need of financial support to “continue paying our employees as we weather this crisis.” Munoz said United Airlines and its employees “unequivocally support” government restrictions on travel and “social distancing” recommendations.
“But, these actions have also created a fast-moving, financial crisis unlike anything the U.S. airline industry has faced before,” he said in the letter, which was co-signed by United Airlines’ employee union leaders. “In fact, the financial impact of this crisis on our industry is much worse than the stark downturn that we saw in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.”
March is “typically our busiest month of the year,” Munoz said. But in the first two weeks of the month, he complained, United Airlines had seen 1 million fewer passengers than last year along with $1.5 billion less revenue.
“The bad news is that it’s getting worse,” he said. “We expect both the number of customers and revenue to decline sharply in the days and weeks ahead.”
You get a check, and you get a check …
At Tuesday’s press conference, Mnuchin said the Trump administration is also working with Congress on plans to provide financial relief to hotels and to send checks to Americans so they have cash to spend during the coronavirus crisis.
“We’re looking at sending checks to Americans immediately,” he said. “Americans need cash now … and I mean now in the next two weeks.”
Mnuchin further announced individuals can defer tax payments up to $1 million and corporations up to $10 million for 90 days, interest and penalty-free.
Trump then stepped in and announced the coronavirus checks were happening. He said some people should get $1,000.
“We’re going to win and I think we’re going to win faster than people think, I hope,” said Trump.
The Democratic-controlled House has already passed a stimulus bill, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York has said his caucus is ready to do the same. But Mnuchin, who has led White House negotiations with Congress, has struggled to assuage the concerns of some Republicans, who control the Senate, about the price tag.
Last month, Congress appropriated $8.3 billion to deal with the spreading coronavirus.
Meanwhile, casinos have joined the airline industry in asking Congress for emergency financial help as Las Vegas and other tourist destinations take a severe financial hit from the coronavirus outbreak.
(Reuters contributed to this report.)