U.S. Airlines 'Fighting For Survival' From Covid's Effects

 - October 27, 2020, 9:00 AM

This story is part of AIN's continuing coverage of the impact of the coronavirus on aviation.

In the first few months of 2020, mainline carriers in the U.S. were transporting 2.5 million passengers and 58,000 tons of cargo a day. Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit. “It all disappeared in two weeks,” said Airlines for America (A4A) president and CEO Nicholas Calio. Today, “[we’re] flying fewer people than we have since the start of the jet age in the 1950s.”

The pandemic, which has stretched into its eighth month, has likewise slammed the regional airline industry. “It’s magnitudes worse than 9/11,” said Regional Airline Association president and CEO Faye Malarkey Black. “It’s magnitudes worse than the Great Recession.”

Covid-19’s impact on the U.S. domestic airline industry was the topic of a panel discussion featuring Calio and Black during the October 19 to 22 Flight Safety Foundation’s 2020 International Air Safety Summit.

With an initial round of payroll support program funding in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding all but drained, U.S. airlines have shed tens of thousands of jobs, many of them highly skilled positions that won’t be easy to replace once demand begins to return, the leaders noted. The industry needs an extension of the payroll support program funding, and that remains uncertain. But without the extension in funding, “we will not be positioned to meet that demand once it comes back,” Black said.

Asked about how the furloughs and layoffs might affect safety, Calio said safety will always remain the “No. 1 priority” for the airlines. But Black noted that change creates a safety risk. “These are the things we are following closely,” she explained. “All parts of the system we have to watch very carefully, continuously looking for and identifying risk.”

Budget planning is especially difficult given the fact that airlines can’t forecast when the pandemic’s effects will ease to the point that most travelers feel safe. “Right now it’s a three-month plan. It’s a six-month plan,” Black said. “We’re fighting for survival.”

Mainline airlines are losing $5 billion a month, deficits they clearly can't sustain," said Calio. At a minimum the airlines need to see load factors of 65 percent in order to survive long-term, he noted, adding 33 percent of the fleet remains parked. “Some people think it will take four years to get up to previous levels [of flights and passenger counts],” Calio said. "Some people think it will take two years. We’re hopeful it’s two years.”

Educating the public on the measures airlines have taken to prevent exposure to the virus is one thing the industry can do to spur demand, he explained. Calio and Malarkey stressed that their members' aircraft are cleaner than they have ever been, through the use of disinfectants, foggers, and aircraft air circulation systems with HEPA filters. “Frankly airplanes are cleaner than they were seven months ago,” Calio said. “It’s a multilayered risk approach that keeps passengers safe.”