Travel agencies will be able to apply for new loan programs and self-employed agents will be eligible for unemployment benefits under the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (Cares) Act agreed upon by congressional leadership and the Trump administration.

While the bill hasn’t been approved by Congress or signed by the president, as it stood on Wednesday, it includes new loan programs. Notably, agencies can apply for Airline Economic Stabilization Loans.

And, there are unemployment benefits for the self-employed, which is particularly relevant to the large segment of independent contractors working as travel advisors.

The bill is expected to be approved and signed into law, but changes could still be made, ASTA said.

ASTA president and CEO Zane Kerby called the coronavirus pandemic ASTA’s biggest challenge to date.

“Over the past few weeks, we have worked hand in hand with our 13,000 members to secure the maximum amount of relief for the travel agency community in this package,” Kerby said in a statement. “The fact that agencies are included in the airline assistance portion of the bill is a huge win and means that Congress heeded our call to include our members in any targeted travel industry relief.”

The Society identified four key provisions in the bill that will benefit agencies.

First, travel agencies will be eligible for Airline Economic Stabilization Loans. Under this provision, airlines, ticket agents (travel agencies) and other related aviation businesses will be eligible for loans, loan guarantees and other aid totaling $25 billion.  

Second, a new Small Business Administration loan program -- the Small Business Interruption Loans/Paycheck Protection Program -- is funded with $349 billion. Under the program, businesses eligible for SBA loans --  for agencies, that means $22 million in annual revenue or less or with 500 or fewer employees -- can apply for loans of up to $10 million. Independent contractors and self-employed individuals are eligible, ASTA said, and the loans do not have collateral or personal guarantee requirements. The portion of the loans used to cover the business’ payroll, mortgage, rent or utilities from Feb. 15 to June 30 can be forgiven.

ASTA has been asking for SBA loans with lesser or no collateral requirements from the beginning, as service-oriented travel agencies, especially those that are home-based, don’t have much collateral.

The third travel agency-eligible provision establishes Economic Stabilization Loans for Severely Distressed Sectors, funded with $425 billion. The U.S. Treasury Department will be able to extend low- or no-interest loans and loan guarantees to U.S. businesses with losses resulting from coronavirus. 

This provision does have a caveat, ASTA said: “This relief is only open to a ‘business that has not otherwise received adequate economic relief in the form of loans or loan guarantees provided under this Act,’  --  meaning the business could not also apply for the new SBA program.

Finally, the Cares Act would extend unemployment benefits for the unemployed for up to 39 weeks. 

ASTA said that provision was one of its priorities, because it includes the self-employed. In the agency community, that means some 40,000 ICs who typically wouldn’t be eligible for unemployment benefits can get relief.

Now, ASTA will turn to analyzing the full Cares Act for other provisions that will impact members. It will also look into how the new SBA loan program will work with existing Disaster Relief programs, and how funds from the new program will be distributed. 

A webinar for members is planned for Friday, March 27, at 3 p.m. At that time, ASTA will present its preliminary analysis of the CARES Act.

Kerby thanked ASTA members for their support. A record of more than 28,000 messages were sent to legislators through the Society’s online grassroots portal.

ASTA encouraged travel advisors to sign up for its Travel Advisor Daily newsletter to stay up to date. It is also holding coronavirus update webinars every Monday. While both have been filled to capacity thus far, the webinars are recorded and available to anyone who can’t access them live.

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