They paid bonuses to their executives.
They also funneled a lot of it to early retirement programs that were in many cases accepted with enthusiasm - especially by pilots.
The $55 billion was supposed to pay the airlines employees during the pandemic so the airlines would be at full force when air travel demand bounced back.
But since the legislation funding the employee retention stipend - $55 billion - had no terms other than the money was to pay employees (executives are employees) the airlines were able to use it to induce early retirement; that, after all, they said to themselves, was paying employees also.
So, all those employees are gone.
Except the executives.
They are all impatiently waiting for the next bailout.
And there is nothing you can do about it as you sit on your suitcase contemplating what to do in a strange city where you just got dropped to a cancelled connecting flight.
By the way - you are a lucky one: you know where your suitcase is.
The airlines are too big to fail; you are too small to worry about.