As I write this, the ink is still drying on the CARES 2.0 legislation that Congress passed in order to offer relief to individuals and businesses as the pandemic rages on. What does it mean for aviation and the airlines?
In short, it’s a Band-aid, and not much else. Last spring, as the full extent of the virus became known, airlines (and the rest of the travel industry) spoke of three possible outcomes. A “V” shaped recovery curve would have meant a severe decrease in travel, followed by a fairly rapid return to levels seen pre-COVID. A “U” shape was described as a severe drop, followed by an extended stay at a decreased level, and then a rapid return to normal. The worst-case scenario is the “L” shaped curve, with traffic and demand bottoming out and not returning to anything remotely resembling normal until a vaccine or an effective therapeutic was available; herd immunity would also help.
The reality has been somewhere between the U and the L curves. Despite the uptick in holiday travel, demand is still way down. At my carrier, the schedule is still less than 50 percent of what it was in 2019, but certain routes are showing hope. Cargo flights are currently doing very well as passenger jets are used to supplement FedEx and UPS to cover transport of the vaccines and personal protective equipment.
With fears of another surge in the first quarter of 2021, it’s too hard to predict any timelines for a return to normalcy. The uneven rollout of the vaccine isn’t helping, but there is hope that we may finally be turning the corner. Airports have more people, and flights are slowly being added to the schedule. At the carriers scheduled to resume or being service with the 737 MAX, the hope is that the fuel efficiency offered by the airplane will allow for some schedule growth.
A friend of mine has a son who is a recent graduate of a major aviation university, and what had been expected to be a fairly quick entry into the airline world was instead replaced by chaos and upheaval. The expected August 2020 class was pushed back indefinitely, but has since been moved to February 2021—good news indeed if it holds, but that’s no sure thing right now. But if it transpires, then it means service to and from smaller regional airline-centric cities is beginning to show some signs of life.
The first big test will be demand for travel over spring break. A number of colleges have pre-emptively cancelled their traditional spring break in an effort to keep the academic calendar on track. But elementary, middle, and high schools are not all taking such a drastic step, and parents who decide to book a trip this year aren’t likely to change their minds after 14 months of being cooped up.
Following spring break, the next time period to watch will be the summer months. The Olympics have been rescheduled, as have all of the qualifying competitions, and if the vaccine rollout picks up steam, people will be more and more ready to travel, and cities and states will be more and more ready to open. Little things will (hopefully) begin to add up: weddings (and subsequent honeymoons) will begin to pepper the calendar, as will the gradual return of major trade shows, conventions, and big business events (including AirVenture, if not Sun ‘n Fun). Families will travel for vacations, to watch their favorite baseball team play, to visit colleges…the list goes on.
If you’re a potential airline pilot, all of this is good news, as is the continuation of retirements because of the Age 65 rule. It will pay to keep abreast of what all of your preferred employers are planning on doing with respect to staffing. One question that has already cropped up is whether the vaccine will be mandatory. Right now, most carriers are keeping mum on any plans to mandate getting the shots, but it’s possible—maybe even likely—that certain countries will require proof of vaccination in order to enter the country. As a pilot, that basically means that the shots will be a requirement. No such mandates are in place yet, but it’s reasonable to expect that they will be coming. It’s also possible that some states will require it.
While 2020 has been a year to forget, it has also been an unforgettable year. But COVID is in our collective crosshairs, and we will find a way to control it and get our lives back. And when that happens, air travel—along with hotels, restaurants, theme parks, and more—will reap the benefits.—Chip Wright
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