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Flying In A Pandemic: How Coronavirus Will Change The Airline Industry

A man wears a gasmask as he travels in a flight from Miami to Atlanta in Miami, on April 23, 2020. (CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)
A man wears a gasmask as he travels in a flight from Miami to Atlanta in Miami, on April 23, 2020. (CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)

The airline industry faces its greatest crisis yet with the pandemic wiping out most travel. When will we feel safe flying again?

Phil LeBeau, CNBC reporter covering the auto and airline industry. ( @Lebeaucarnews)

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants. ( @FlyingWithSara)

Christine Negroni, aviation journalist. Former air safety investigator. Author of “ The Crash Detectives.” ( @cnegroni)

Barry Biffle, CEO of Frontier Airlines. ( @FlyFrontier)

Interview Highlights

What will it take for the airline industry to bounce back?

Phil Lebeau: “I think that it comes down to two things. One, not only do we need to see states and economies and businesses open up so that people, if they’re going somewhere, have a reason to go there — people are just not going to buy a ticket just to say, I went on a flight down to Dallas and I turned around and came back. They will have a reason to be somewhere or to go somewhere, whether that’s business or leisure. So we need the economy to open in different regions, to open up. And the other thing that would really make a huge difference would be some form of, if it’s not a vaccine, at least it’s a way of saying, look, we have some therapeutics that could limit the impact of coronavirus, because I think right now it’s the great unknown for people. And they’re saying, how comfortable do I feel that I’m going somewhere and there’s not going to be a hotspot? Well, if there is a hotspot, if I know that there is a vaccine or if I know there’s a therapeutic and I know that it’s just going to be a bad case of the flu, I’d feel a lot more comfortable about traveling.”

On how struggling airline workers are faring right now

Sarah Nelson: “Our concern right now is that we’ve put this funding in place and we have airlines like Delta Airlines cutting people’s hours. So, you know, cutting them back to part time, that effects their benefits, that affects their vacation and sick leave and all of that. So they are not using the money properly now. But unless we have some kind of continued support for the industry after October 1st, this is going to lead to massive layoffs and it will really be put on the backs of the workers who are working now. I’m trying to make sure that that doesn’t happen, both in terms of putting in place voluntary programs with our airlines, but also starting to think about what are the kinds of support that we’re going to need from our government after October 1st.”

On the ripple effects of the collapse of air travel

Christine Negroni: “You think about the knock-on effects: The luxury goods that are normally sold in airports; the little family, mom-and-pop operations that are selling you sodas in the airport; or just, you know, farther and farther on down the line, the things you can’t get because flights aren’t coming in with products that are produced in other parts of the world and assembled somewhere else. It’s monumentally huge. It’s humanity-changing. I know it sounds hyperbolic to say it, but I do believe it’s going to change everything about the way we live.”

On the deeper problems in the industry that the pandemic exposes

Christine Negroni: “I fear that the aviation industry sees this as another disruption — obviously larger, obviously more perilous — but one that they merely need to get to the other side of and they’ll be back to business as usual. And I do not believe that. I do not believe we will get back to business as usual in at least the next decade. And I think there’s been a fundamental shift in the way people view travel.

“… People have become addicted to the crack-cocaine of getting on cheap flights anywhere they want, any time they want. That’s how the airlines have sold this to the world. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I mean, I love to travel and most people do. But that’s not sustainable anymore, not just because the finances aren’t going to work anymore with social distancing, it’s not going to work to fill up an airplane and charge $69 a pop or $120 a pop. But also because we recognize now what the National Security Council said in 2015, which is that airlines are a mechanism for the spread of pandemics. They said that in 2015 and the airlines did not do much about cleaning their own act up. And so as December and January rolled along and we knew there was this problem in China, airlines continued to transfer people from one end of the earth to the other. And here we are.”

On the steps airlines are taking to ensure passenger safety

Barry Biffle: “We will have a touchless thermometer that we check your temperature as you’re boarding the plane. It won’t take any more time, but it helps ensure that everyone is safe. If you do pop over one hundred point four, we’ll pull you to the side and check it 10 minutes later. Just in case you were running through the airport or are under some type of stress to make sure that you truly have some type of infection.

“… We are washing down the planes every night, but we’re also applying a product that kills the virus on contact. And actually, we started with a product that kills it up to 10 days, but the new product that we’ve introduced actually kills it for up to 90 days…. We’re just doing everything we can think of and rolling it out as fast as we can to make sure people are safe. And what we’re hearing now is we’ve kind of reached the final step, and based on what everyone knows and expects based on customer data and customer feedback, we’re seeing the confidence in travel coming back.”

On the rise of the “staycation” as air travel declines

Christine Negroni: “I think people are discovering their own, you know, their own backyards. I listened to one of your programs recently about the reemergence of wildlife into neighborhoods. So people are sort of, I think, becoming tourists in their own homes and beginning to appreciate that in a way that perhaps they didn’t under the onslaught of airline marketing, that you need to go somewhere to be with, you know, to enjoy your family or you need to go somewhere to to enjoy yourself. I think people are kind of rediscovering their own homes. It’s more economical and it’s less scary.”

From The Reading List

New York Times: “ Obstacles and Opportunities for the Aviation Industry” — “The coronavirus outbreak has upended commercial aviation, with consequences that are not fully realized. The airline trade group, International Air Transport Association, anticipates that the world’s air carriers will see this year’s revenues drop by more than half, and a number of industry watchers predict that it will be years before air travel returns to 2019 levels.”

Washington Post: “ Frontier just became the first U.S. airline to require passenger temperature screening” — “Frontier Airlines said Thursday it will require passengers to have their temperatures taken before boarding flights, starting June 1, in an effort to make traveling safer during the coronavirus pandemic.”

Associated Press: “ Why Are Some Planes Crowded Even With Air Travel Down?” — “Every once in a while, social media lights up with photos or video from flights that are nearly full, with passengers clearly violating advice from public health officials about social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.”

Travel Pulse:Association of Flight Attendants President Calls Out Airlines for Undermining CARES Act” -“Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, today sent a letter to the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science, Transportation Committee ahead of its hearings on the industry, saying in part that some airlines are “attempting to flout” the intent of the CARES Act stimulus package.”

Washington Post: “ Frontier Airlines abandons plan to sell $39 social distancing upgrade” — “Faced with widespread outrage from Democratic lawmakers, Frontier Airlines said late Wednesday it was abandoning its plan to sell passengers a $39 upgrade that would guarantee they could sit next to an empty middle seat while flying during the coronavirus outbreak.”

New York Times: “ Few Travelers, Few Flights and Now, a Total Airport Shutdown” — “Before the coronavirus pandemic brought air travel to a near standstill, airlines operated 40 daily flights from Westchester County Airport.”

CNBC: “ GE Aviation to furlough 50% of its engine manufacturing staff” — “CNBC’s Phil LeBeau reports that General Motors will increase the number of furloughs from 10 percent to 50 percent of its engine staff. The staff will be furloughed for up to four weeks.”

Washington Post: “ Scientists know ways to help stop viruses from spreading on airplanes. They’re too late for this pandemic.” — “On March 14, 1977, a woman with the flu climbed aboard a 737 and headed for Kodiak, Alaska, with 53 other passengers and crew. After an engine failed, most of them sat on the runway with the cabin doors shut, and the ventilation system off, for two hours. Within three days, 38 more people were sick.”

NPR: “ Boeing And Airbus Halt Production; Future Of Airplane Manufacturing Uncertain” — “Two more big airplane manufacturing facilities are shutting down because of the coronavirus outbreak.”

Forbes: “ Airlines May Lose Up To 18% Of Connections To New Airport Screening Processes For Coronavirus: OAG” — “For airlines, optimal aircraft utilization is everything. And it seems, no matter how they slice it, that in the midst-coronavirus crisis that goal cannot be achieved.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.