Airline industry in crisis in face of COVID-19 pandemic

Demand for long-haul travel grounds to a near halt.

With Europe and North America scrambling to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the airline industry entered a period of tremendous uncertainty over the weekend as more travel restrictions were put in place and a near total drop in demand for long-haul services forced major carriers to start implementing drastic reductions in flights for the foreseeable future.

The world’s largest airline, American Airlines, for example, said it would slash international capacity by 75% from March 16 to May 6. The carrier will operate just three long-haul international flights: one daily flight between Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) and London Heathrow (LHR); one daily flight between Miami (MIA) and LHR; and 3X-weekly flights between DFW and Tokyo Narita (NRT).

“This change is in response to decreased demand and changes to US government travel restrictions due to coronavirus (COVID-19),” American said in a statement.

The airline anticipates domestic capacity will drop 20% year-over-year (YOY) in April and 30% YOY in May.

Delta Air Lines, the airline usually offering the most transatlantic flights, said only the following North America to Europe flights would continue to operate after March 16: Atlanta (ATL)-Amsterdam (AMS); ATL-LHR; ATL-Paris Charles De Gaulle (PDG); Detroit (DTW)-AMS; DTW-LHR; New York JFK-LHR; and JFK-Dublin (DUB).

Delta CEO Ed Bastian said the carrier will park up to 300 aircraft—about a third of its mainline fleet—while deferring all new aircraft deliveries.

The moves followed the US extending its previously imposed 30-day ban on foreign nationals arriving from Europe’s Schengen Area to the UK and Ireland as well after US President Donald Trump advised against travel.

“Well, if you don’t have to travel, I wouldn’t do it,” Trump said at the White House on March 14.  “We want this thing to end. We don’t want a lot of people getting infected. We want it to end, and end as quickly as possible.”

France and Spain both implemented widespread lockdowns on Saturday, announcing that nearly all civil activities would cease and people should stay home to avoid transmitting COVID-19. Such measures called into question the basic logistics of how people could get to and from airports to board flights.

Meanwhile, US citizens and permanent residents attempting to return to the US from Europe through 13 designated airports were faced with long queues for medical screening at US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) checkpoints upon arrival, leading to massive crowds at airports such as Chicago O’Hare (ORD) that public officials including Illinois Governor JB Pritzker pointed out created the very conditions for virus transmission that needed to be avoided.

“The crowds & lines at O’Hare are unacceptable & need to be addressed immediately,” Pritzker told Trump on Twitter.

Anthony Fauci, the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a key member of the US government’s response to the pandemic, indicated that the crowding at airports like ORD was a negative, unintended consequence of necessary travel restrictions. “That’s not what we like to see,” Fauci said on CNN when shown dramatic photos of packed passengers being processed at ORD CBP checkpoints.

Fauci said US citizens and permanent residents would be better off if they returned to the country gradually, but acknowledged that it was “human nature” for people to respond to the uncertainty regarding the availability of flights back to the US.

“Somehow we need to mitigate that,” he said. “If you can possibly lessen that crowding, one way or another, we should do it.”

European Union officials said publicly that Trump’s travel restrictions from Europe, announced March 11 in an Oval Office speech, were put in place without coordination or advance notice, a move they harshly criticized and warned would lead to mass confusion.

The situation regarding the COVID-19 response remains fluid and the consequences for a reeling airline industry are uncertain.

Fauci said from the White House on March 14 that US cases of COVID-19, now exceeding 2,220 with 50 deaths, “have not reached our peak” and that the crisis is in its early days. 

“We will see more cases and we will see more suffering and death predominantly … among the vulnerables in our society … and the elderly,” he said, explaining that life in the US will be dramatically changed for the foreseeable future.

Photo credit: American Airlines