Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.
Editor’s Note: This article is part of “Uncharted,” a series about the world we’re leaving behind, and the one being remade by the pandemic.
I last took a “normal” commercial-airline flight back in February. It was normal in that most people did not seem to be having a good time. Before the flight, passengers lumbered out of their Ubers and taxis, or stepped off the shuttles from the rental-car offices and remote parking, and trudged through the familiar series of lines.
Lines to check in. Lines for the TSA checkpoints. Lines at the departure gate. Lines at restaurants and coffee shops to get the food and drink that the airlines no longer provide. The eye-rolling status-jockeying in the pile-up at the departure gate—“Excuse me, but are you really in Group 1?”—followed by eye-rolling in the aisle about someone hogging precious overhead-bin space.
I could go on—the baggage fees, the decreased “seat pitch” that jams your knees into the person in front of you, the cancellations and ripple-effect schedule delays—but less is more when it comes to an experience so many people have shared. Before the airline-deregulation revolution of the 1970s, wrought by Jimmy Carter, fares were much higher than they are now, as were the annual crash and fatality rates; the share of Americans who had ever taken a flight was much lower. Now, in any given year, nearly half of the American public takes at least one commercial flight, and the average fare per mile has been in long-term decline.
I said “now,” but of course I mean then: then, as of my latest visit to an airport, in February. Then, before the lockdowns. Then, before America’s main carriers mothballed about half their fleets. Then, before the number of passengers arriving at airports collapsed from about 2.3 million each day to about 95,000. The trade group Airlines for America declined to let me speak to its head economist. I like to think that it was trying to shield him from having too many depressing discussions in a row. But they sent a fact sheet showing that in April 2020 travel bookings were down by 98 percent from last year’s levels and that the average domestic flight had 12.5 passengers on board. (Later they reported that the average passenger count had fallen to 10—and this is despite some reports of planes operating with full passenger loads.) In early May, Warren Buffett, renowned for his messages of long-term optimism about U.S. stocks during previous financial downturns, announced that Berkshire Hathaway was selling all of its substantial holdings in the four major U.S. airlines: American, Delta, United, and Southwest. A few days earlier, British Airways announced that it was laying off some 12,000 employees, nearly one-third of its entire staff.
Of all the industries devastated by the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown—restaurants and bars, hotels and convention centers, movie theaters and shopping malls—the airlines’ situation is in a sense the worst. Most of the other businesses are suffering because they have been told to close. The airlines are suffering in part because they have been told to stay open. As a condition of the recent bailout packages, and in order to retain long-term rights to their routes, airlines need to keep flying ghost routes: planes with almost no passengers but a full flight crew and cabin staff.
Then, the airline hell was one of too many competing for too little. Too many passengers for the facilities at the airport and the space aboard the plane. Too many planes for the available takeoff and landing slots. Too many cars for the available curb space. Too many loads of baggage for rush-hour handling capacity. Everywhere you looked, too many or too much.
Now, too few. And that is the prospect for the foreseeable future. The airline business has more than one metabolism. Minute by minute, airlines are adjusting schedules and fares. But in placing bets on new aircraft, they must try to imagine circumstances that lie decades—and many business and technology cycles—in the future. Boeing began laying plans for its 737 series in the mid-1960s. The planning that led to the ill-starred 737 Max began a dozen years before its first crash.
How the airline and aviation world will look a generation from now, no one can say. Sustainable biofuels or more practical electric-powered aircraft? Or a climate-driven backlash against air travel as a whole? Chinese progress in their long-standing challenge to the Boeing-Airbus duopoly (a project whose origin I described in a book eight years ago)? The even longer-standing dream of flying cars? A virtual-reality breakthrough that makes Zoom tolerable and thus reduces the incentive to travel in the first place? Anything could happen.
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We can’t know about that future. But people I spoke with during the past several weeks—economists, engineers, aviation analysts, professional pilots—were more certain about what the next few years will bring: namely, sustained bad times for the world’s airlines. What I saw just two months ago in a bustling airport, no one will see, anywhere, for a very long time. That is because, as Jon Ostrower, the editor of The Air Current put it to me, “there are only two things that airlines can do to make people come back.” He explained what they would be: “One is a vaccine, so people feel safe going to the airport or sitting with 150 strangers in a plane. The other is people having the wherewithal to travel. Do you have a job? Do you have enough money that you can think of taking your family on a vacation? These are things that control the airlines’ future, and that they cannot do anything about.”
“For all intents and purposes, the airlines are shut down now,” Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and author of the Ask the Pilot website, told me. “They’re still flying, but at vastly reduced levels. The majors are running maybe 5 or 10 percent of their normal number of departures. Clearly this isn’t sustainable. Survivability depends on how quickly passengers come back.” In early April, Smith wrote on his web site, “Last Monday night I flew a 767 into New York. Was that the last commercial flight I will ever pilot? It is not inconceivable. Enough of me was convinced of it that I asked the captain if I could fly the leg and make the landing.”
Smith told me later in the month that he had made one more flight and one more landing since then. “I expect to fly sporadically in the weeks ahead, and employees are furlough-protected at least through the summer. What happens beyond that point is unknown, however. If passengers don’t return in significant enough numbers, the situation could be very, very dire.”
When will the airlines return to “normal” as we knew it a few months ago? That was the question I asked everyone I spoke with. “Maybe five years,” one person said. “I think four years,” said an optimist. Another person guessed seven. “I think never,” said an airline pilot, now on indefinite furlough.
But between now and five to seven years from now, some people will have to, or will choose to, travel. Maybe there is a medical emergency. Maybe there is a must-do business deal. Maybe something else occurs. The TSA has a fascinating site that gives live daily updates on the numbers coming through its security stations. In the middle of April, only 4 percent of the prior year’s number of passengers was being checked by the TSA. Two weekends ago, the figure hit a recent high of nearly 7 percent—about 170,000 passengers, versus more than 2.5 million last year.
Let’s assume it keeps creeping up—to maybe 10 percent of previous levels, or 15 percent. That is still a catastrophe for the airlines, but it’s a large enough number to raise this question: What will air travel be like in the time before a vaccine? I have a personal interest in this question. Sometime in the coming weeks, for extended-family reasons, I may go to Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C., where I’ve started or ended countless trips, for a flight under today’s new circumstances to California. If that happens, I’ll report later on what I saw and found, as The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins has himself recently done. Here is what I have learned so far about what to expect.
Buying the ticket. Obviously there are fewer flights to choose from, as airlines idle as much of their fleet as possible and offer only the flights that they have a regulatory or other nonbusiness obligation to maintain. Less obviously, the fares are not all as cheap as you might expect, considering that most planes are flying nearly empty and the airlines are losing money each time one takes off. Some bargain fares do pop up: I have seen $199-or-less, sometimes much less, offers for coast-to-coast flights on mainstream carriers that used to charge three or four (or eight) times as much.
“Why aren’t you seeing the bargain fares you thought you’d find?” Helane Becker, a managing director at the Cowen research group and a longtime analyst of the airline industry, said to me. “The reason is that the airlines have no incentive to cut fares. Usually you can stimulate demand for leisure travel with lower fares. But now you can’t.” A pilot for an international airline told me, “You could always count on filling a flight if you just lowered the price. That won’t be true for a while.”
Becker said that if I were scouring a range of discount-fare sites, such as FareCompare.com (as I have done), I would see “fares that are crazy low.” The catch, according to Becker, is that many of those flights might be “canceled at the last minute, as they adjust to get as much traffic as they can onto the fewest flights.”
When can passengers start expecting lower fares? According to several analysts, not until demand for air travel starts to go up again—and price competition once again becomes a factor in people’s decisions on whether to fly. Richard Aboulafia, the vice president of analysis at the Teal Group, an aerospace-and-defense-analysis company, said, “Once people start coming back, then you try to build demand with mega-cheap fares. Until then, there is no point.”
Check-in and security. Anyone who has traveled through China in the 15-plus years since the SARS outbreak is familiar with the large temperature-check gates that inbound and outbound passengers must walk through. Some of them look like bigger versions of the metal-detector gates that are standard-issue in many U.S. buildings. (Write your own essay on the threats each society is concerned about.) The gates alert quarantine officers to the presence of anyone who seems to have a fever, enabling individual follow-up examination by thermometer. Virtually no U.S. airports ran passengers through such equipment a year ago, and virtually all of them are likely to do so a year from now.
As you check in and go through security, you’ll of course wear a mask. A few airlines have already required this. All are likely to do so, probably soon.
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Everything will be slower. If you check baggage, the handles may need to be wiped before staff members touch them. If you don’t think you’ll be checking baggage, think again: The airlines will likely crack down further on carry-on items, which potentially come into contact with other passengers. On the bright side, less carry-on baggage will reduce the rugby-scrum nature of the boarding process. It will also diminish impending delays at the TSA checkpoint, where agents may need to stop and wipe down bins after exposure to each passenger’s coat and bags. “You can wipe down every bin when you have only 100,000 people traveling every day,” Helane Becker told me. “But if you have 500,000 people”—still less than a quarter of what the volume used to be—“it is going to be a nightmare.”
Everyone I spoke with said that the long-term effects of this public-health crisis are likely to match the “security theater” since the 9/11 attacks—for instance, the requirement that most passengers take off their shoes at TSA checkpoints, now more than 18 years after a man named Richard Reid attempted to blow up a plane by lighting the fuse to some explosives he had packed into the soles of his boots, and the ban on taking more than a few ounces of liquid aboard a flight. For the aviation business, “public-health theater” might include hand-sanitizer dispensers placed throughout airports; or tape markings on the floor indicating ideal separation distances; or other steps that can’t hurt, but also can’t solve the fundamental problem of packing a lot of people into a confined space. Will there be “healthy traveler” credentials that serve as a counterpart to today’s “trusted traveler” status? Will passengers be more willing, or less, to trade their personal privacy, and personal trackability, to increase their own convenience or advance overall safety? No one presumed to know the answers yet.
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