In 25 years of airline flying, I’ve either been involved in or observed several full or partial shutdowns of airlines or the industry as a whole.
In 2001, I was employed at Comair for the pilot strike, and the shutdown of the airline was an organized, four-day process as the company moved to get airplanes and crews in position before the pilots would stop flying. A few months later, we were part of the industrywide immediate cessation of operations when the tragic events of September 11, 2001, occurred.
The following year Comair also weathered a scheduling computer system crash over the Christmas holidays that was anything but orderly. In addition, I’ve watched strikes at other airlines take place, and I’ve seen the fallout of employee job actions, failed websites, and the grounding of fleets of airplanes at unexpected times.
All of these events led to the inevitable restart of operations of some sort, and in the case of 9/11, the spool-up was also followed by the near retirement of fleets of airplanes, mostly the venerable 727.
As we work our way through the COVID-19 pandemic, we are witnessing similar events. We can use these to get a bit of an idea of how the industry will begin the return to service. The closest comparable event is 9/11, and that isn’t even all that close in terms of the damage. Every airplane in the United States was grounded, but only for four days. The rest of the world continued to fly, and even though demand was diminished when flights resumed, it was better than it is now.
C-19 has stopped travel around the world. At one point, 16,000 of the world’s 24,000 airliners were parked at airports around the globe. Entire airlines were shut down or announced that they had or planned to go out of business. People stopped buying tickets, and fewer people flew in a month than normally fly on a single day. Flights in April and early May were averaging 10 or so people.
As in 2001, airlines began announcing plans to eliminate entire fleets of airplanes. In the United States, Delta and American announced retirements of multiple fleets, to include the MD-88/90, A-330, 757, 777 and E-190, with rumors of the B-717 also being put to bed. Eliminating these airframes will reduce costs dramatically with respect to spare parts, fuel, training, and the occasional equipment swap. Carriers in other countries are planning to park the A-380, the world’s largest airplane, and one that never really found a niche.
In the last few days, there have been some signs of optimism. Ticket sales starting in July have begun to show some positive activity, and passengers are showing a bit more tolerance for close-to-the-neighbor seating in order to get where they need to go. United has quietly made plans to bring more than 60 airplanes out of storage for the July schedule, and Southwest is strategically adding flights as well. While all of the airlines have announced plans to emerge in the fall “at least” 30 percent smaller, it’s clear that they will take into account demand for travel as they add flights and try to bring the daily cash burn to at least zero.
As we move into the fall, everyone will be holding their collective breath on two fronts: How many employees might be furloughed, and how severe might a second wave of C-19 turn out to be? Furloughs are on everyone’s mind right now, and most recognize that the airlines will probably have no choice. But if demand continues to rise at a somewhat predictable pace, hopefully any time on the unemployment lines will be short. The larger issue is the unknown of the resurgence of the virus this fall and how people might react to it.
Some travel will be lost for good, and many leisure trips won’t be taken. But business travelers will continue to fly, and the airlines will adapt to the new demands and whatever cleaning procedures will be ongoing. Ticket prices will undoubtedly rise. More airplanes will come out of storage, but not all. An airline or two may fail, victim of too many dollars going out and not enough coming in. But in time, the system will work itself out. It always does.—Chip Wright