June 2, 2020

Talking Transportation: Airlines Hit COVID Turbulence

Jim Cameron

I’ve always been fascinated by the airline business.  Even though I’m not a great flyer, the whole idea of moving hundreds of people from point A to point B in a metal tube has astounded me.

I even remember the good old days of “Youth Standby” flights in the 1960’s when we could get a 50 percent fare discount just by helping fill empty seats.  But until recently the planes have been chock-a-block full and the airlines had actually been making money.

Of course, after 9/11 all that changed. 

With increased TSA security and a major economic hit, people were afraid (or unable) to fly.  I remember one commentator calling the aftermath to 9/11 being like an example of product tampering, akin to putting poison in Tylenol bottles.

Now, all that has changed, thanks to COVID-19.

Airlines are curtailing service, and in some cases shutting down completely, as people “shelter in place.”  That’s meant tens of thousands of layoffs of already underpaid airline employees.

But when we get through all this … and we will … what’s the long-term prospect for the airline business?

Will business people, the bread and butter of the airlines (because they pay the highest fares), return to the skies or find that teleconferencing is enough to make deals and stay in touch with clients?

Leisure travelers may still be there.  You can’t telecommute to Aruba.  And when the pandemic has passed, there will doubtless be such pent-up demand to get a change of scenery that will all want to get back on the road … at least if we have the money.

Even before COVID-19, airlines were mothballing their bigger, older planes.  The super-jumbo, double-decker A-380 was just too big and fuel-inefficient to keep flying on most routes (which is why it was never adopted by a US airline.)

The airline business is capital intensive (really expensive to run) and operates on very thin profit margins.  With low fares, you really had to pack a plane to make any money.  And factoring in inflation, airfares (before the virus) were the lowest since 1995.

Going forward, will people really want to sit for hours, three-abreast, with 200+ strangers, sharing their air and whatever else, when we know of recent cases of contagious passengers flying, even on smaller jets?

And you thought that fellow passenger on your last flight who insisted on sanitizing her seatback tray was a germophobe?  You ain’t seen nothing yet.

Will people who survive the virus, and most of us will, still be contagious?  Will doctors have to give us a “COVID CARD” after we are “clear” that we will need to show when we travel or attend large events?

And most importantly, will the airlines themselves survive?  The government’s stimulus package sets aside $25 billion for the ailing carriers.  And Uncle Sam may turn those loans into grants in return for an equity stake in the airlines.

The big airlines will probably get through all this, but some small carriers are already closing up shop.  The airports themselves are also hurting, their runways stuffed with grounded jets parked for the duration.

As difficult as these times may be for us, sheltering in place for the airlines and their employees is much, much worse.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

About the author: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own. You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com  For a full collection of  “Talking Transportation” columns, visit www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com.

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