Airline execs seeking $58 billion warn Congress 'time is running out'

Company leaders made one last plea on Saturday.

Major U.S. airline executives warned lawmakers on Saturday that if they did not immediately pass worker payroll protection grants, many airlines would be forced to furlough employees.

In an attempt to weather the Coronavirus crisis, the airline industry has been trying to obtain financing in the credit market and has taken unprecedented measures such as slashing flights, cutting executive pay, offering employees unpaid leave and parking hundreds of aircraft.

Despite measures to keep costs down, U.S. airline executives warned House and Senate leadership that "time is running out" to protect the industry's 750,000 employees.

"The breadth and immediacy of the need to act cannot be overstated," executives wrote in a joint letter to lawmakers. "It is urgent and unprecedented."

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Chief Executive Officers of several major U.S. airlines have spent the past week meeting with members of the administration and Congress and have asked for $58 billion in aid.

On Saturday, airline executives promised that if the industry receives at least $29 billion in cash grants they will not furlough employees and will agree to accept limits on executive compensation and eliminate stock buybacks and dividends.

The Coronavirus Economic Stabilization Act of 2020 would provide the $58 billion to passenger and cargo carriers through loans, but it would bar cash grants.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters on Saturday that the issue of cash grants is "tough."

"The question on grant dollars is something that the airlines have raised, but at this point, I don't sense support for it here or with the administration," Thune said. "But like I said, nothing is done. These issues are still being negotiated."

Unions like the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA joined in the fight with airlines on Saturday, pleading for direct federal money.

"This is not another bailout for the airlines and giant corporations," AFA-CWA President Sara Nelson said. "In fact, it holds them accountable by designating the money for payroll and jobs while banning stock buybacks, exec bonuses and dividends. And it keeps union contracts intact."

Delta Airlines CEO Ed Bastian said on Friday that 13,000 of its employees had taken voluntary unpaid leave.

United Airlines confirmed to ABC News "thousands" of employees also took leave. A few hours later, United announced it was reducing international capacity by 95% for the month of April.

The International Air Transport Association has estimated airlines, globally, may need up to $200 billion in aid.

ABC News' Mariam Khan, Amanda Maile and Gio Benitez contributed to this report.