As we enter the second year of the pandemic, there are signs of an ever-so-slow return to normalcy. In the last couple of months, airports are showing more signs of activity, from more crowded terminals to more flights arriving and departing. Airlines are cycling more airplanes in and out of storage, and more importantly, they are bringing some out of storage for good. At three U.S. based carriers—United, Southwest, and American—the Boeing 737 MAX has returned to service.
The three big federal payroll protection program (PPP) grants and loans have gone a long way to help stabilize the industry. Employees who were going to be furloughed are being kept on the payroll. Pilots are being kept current, and those who can afford to take some unpaid time off are being given an opportunity to do so. (Two of these PPP blocks have already been signed into law; the third is currently headed toward the Senate, where it is likely to pass.)
Now that the U.S. FDA has approved a third vaccine, we can pick up the steady march toward herd immunity in the United States while also sending extra supply to other nations that need it. This is critical for helping achieve a return toward normal levels of trade, travel, and tourism. It will take some time for the global economy to rebound, but once that recovery gains traction, it should be a steady improvement. Time will tell.
In the aviation sector, this is all great news. Few industries are as capital-intensive as the airlines with as few direct sources of revenue. A number of airlines have already failed, and more may well follow. But the best news is that several airlines that were talking about having to furlough are now actively spooling up their hiring processes.
During the pandemic, agreements were made with various unions to offer early retirement packages to employees, including pilots, and it now looks like there will be a faster recovery in some sectors than originally anticipated. Leisure travel will recover first, and maybe even fastest, as folks look to get away from home after feeling trapped for so long. Florida is open, except for cruises, and flights to and from the state are full and—for now—usually cheap.
Business travel will take longer to recover, but that might also make it more predictable and easier to manage. The international business community will take longer to return as nations slowly lift their travel restrictions and the vaccines begin to reach more and more people. That said, trade shows, meetings, et cetera, that were postponed or canceled will slowly be returned to the calendar, and advance tickets will be sought, bought, and sold.
All signs point to the beginning of the beginning of the end of the pandemic, with a nation and a globe full of people desperate to return to a more normal, familiar life. If this is indeed the case, the airlines have weathered an incredibly difficult path—one that would not have been possible without federal aid, but still they will have succeeded.
It’s too soon to say if the pilot shortages of 2018 to 2020 will return, or will be as severe, but I think it is safe to say that those who want to find a career in aviation will have the opportunities to do so far sooner than we might have thought even a few months ago, and that is indeed welcome news.—Chip Wright