I’ve been tooting the horn on progress in the airline industry for several years now, so you can imagine my shock and dismay at the developments in the economy since mid-March.
The C-19 pandemic has obliterated the prospects of a thriving industry that just a few months ago didn’t have enough pilots, airplanes, runways, or cheap fuel. Now, billions of dollars are being lost as the airlines are forced to park hundreds of airplanes, while the ones they are flying are largely empty.
I was asked recently what a day at work looks like now, and in a word, it’s surreal. I haven’t flown in three weeks because my trips have either been cancelled, or I can’t get to work because there are no flights.
When I was last there, the airports were empty. I’ve seen terminals that had more people in them at 3 a.m. than I’m seeing at 3 p.m. There are more employees than passengers. Restaurants are closed or have a limited menu. The retail shops are completely locked up.
You don’t realize how big even the smallest terminals are until you see them completely empty. Miles of security line barriers look silly and out of place now. The TSA personnel are bored to tears. Some flights are so empty that the gate agents don’t even use the PA system to announce boarding. I’ve had as few as 10 people on one of my own flights, and I’ve ridden on flights of multiple carriers that only have one paying passenger on board.
For years, I’ve had to endure periodic memos and initiatives on saving fuel and being on time to minimize clogging up either airspace or taxiways. Saving fuel now consists of carrying an extra 30,000 pounds—up to five hours’ worth—because the fuel farm at the hub has too much fuel and can’t store any more. Never in my career did I see that coming.
When the flights are only carrying a few people, it’s natural to want to push back 20 to 30 minutes early, but we’re being asked not to because of busy gate space. That sounds laughable, but the issue is real. So many airplanes have been grounded that some airports are out of room to store them. Many are stored at the gates, and airlines are minimizing the number of gates they are using. So, being early is still a problem.
Some large hubs are using runways to store airplanes. Right now this isn’t a problem, but it could be. Not only might the runways be needed, but airplanes are so big that if you need to move the one in the middle of a row of twenty, it could literally take all day to rejuggle everything.
As I sit here, the outlook on bookings isn’t good. The airlines that took CARES Act funding have to maintain staffing through the end of September, but based on what we see now, there is likely to be a bloodbath of furloughs come October. It will take some time to work through all of the pilots, since there will be so much training involved.
The feeling is that the flying public needs to regain confidence in travel, and they are looking for one of four things to happen: a treatment, a cure, a vaccine, or herd immunity. None of those are looking great right now, though a vaccine may be closer than we had hoped.
The other piece of this pie is that people need to have something to fly to. The Florida amusement parks are talking about staying closed until 2021, and restaurants will take a while to return to normal, either in capacity or on the menu. Food shortages are possible as well.
This is going to be a challenging recovery. Two airlines—Trans States and Compass, both under the Trans States Holdings umbrella—have gone out of business, as has Jet Suites. Overseas, South African, and Flybe have shut down. Others are likely to follow, and all of the legacy carriers in the United States have acknowledged that they will be substantially smaller come fall. It’s clear that they are now hoping to save the holiday travel seasons. But with billions in debt, soon to be made worse, it’s possible that there will be some more consolidation.
On the positive side, governments at all levels are doing everything they can to help keep the global economy alive. There is a clear goal of trying to let the economy regain some traction in hopes that it restarts relatively smoothly, if not quickly. Only time will tell if that’s going to work.
So what is a prospective pilot to do? Some things are simple: keep applications up to date, making especially sure they are accurate. Stay in touch with your network. Fly when you can, and at least stay legal. If you can provide any aid to those in need with an airplane, do so. And most important, stay healthy. Odds are the airlines are going to offer early retirement packages to senior pilots, and a number of them will jump on the opportunity. That will move things along, especially since retirements are just now picking up.
There will be some “right-sizing” at the regionals as well, and it will bear watching to see exactly how they retool their operations. But there will be room for opportunities for the RJs as well, since they can go to cities with lower demands and help restore a market for their partners. In other cities, they can hold the fort until the majors can bring in larger equipment.
We’ve all heard that we will recover from this, and we will. But it will take time, patience, and fortitude. But a recovery will happen.—Chip Wright