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Airline furloughs begin as federal pandemic relief expires

FILE - American Airlines ticket agent Henry Gemdron, left, works with a customer at Miami International Airport during the coronavirus pandemic, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020, in Miami.  U.S. airlines began furloughing more than 32,000 employees on Thursday after a federal prohibition on job cuts expired. American Airlines and United Airlines said that they could reverse the furloughs if Congress and the White House quickly agree to provide billions more in taxpayer help to the embattled airline industry.(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)
FILE - American Airlines ticket agent Henry Gemdron, left, works with a customer at Miami International Airport during the coronavirus pandemic, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020, in Miami. U.S. airlines began furloughing more than 32,000 employees on Thursday after a federal prohibition on job cuts expired. American Airlines and United Airlines said that they could reverse the furloughs if Congress and the White House quickly agree to provide billions more in taxpayer help to the embattled airline industry.(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

U.S. airlines began furloughing more than 32,000 employees on Thursday after a federal prohibition on job cuts expired.

American Airlines and United Airlines said that they could reverse the furloughs if Congress and the White House quickly agree to provide billions more in taxpayer help to the embattled airline industry.

The White House included $20 billion for airlines in a $1.6 trillion COVID-19 relief proposal, moving closer to House Democrats' $2.2 trillion plan. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the new offer still fell short.

Airlines and their unions are lobbying for money to keep workers on airline payrolls for six more months, through next March. They received $25 billion, mostly in cash, to pay employees through Sept. 30 in exchange for avoiding layoffs or furloughs.

Airlines have already shrunk by persuading tens of thousands of employees to volunteer for early retirement or buyouts — Southwest's workforce shrank by 28%. Even with those departures, however, the airlines still have more employees than they need because air travel is down nearly 70% from a year ago.

The largest four U.S. airlines have lost more than $10 billion between them since the pandemic started.