Air travel is not what it was used to be. In January, passenger numbers and airline profits reached record highs, but since the COVID-19 outbreak, the industry has suffered devastating losses. And, as Scott Thuman reports, many Americans have come down with a serious case of: Fear of Flying.
Scott Thuman: It has become a defining image of the pandemic, once bustling airport taxiways suddenly quiet. Packed concourses around the world, at times, practically empty. After 9/11, flights in North America were grounded for three days, coronavirus has wiped out the majority of global commercial aviation for months, with no end in sight. To see what the future of flying is going to look like, we headed out from Washington, DC. The airport relatively silent, the aircraft half-empty but spotlessly clean.
(video: old newsreel showing air travel)
Narrator: The hostess greets them at the door.
Scott: Since commercial aviation took off in the years before World War 2, there’s been a steady rise in flights and passengers.
Narrator: Let’s go, there are the copilot and stewardess.
By the beginning of the year, U.S. airlines flew two and half million passengers a day. Then came COVID 19.
President Trump: To keep new cases from entering our shores, we will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days.
Scott: By April, passenger volume was down 96%, a level not seen since the 1950s.
Nick Calio: They had put in place enough reserves to cover an event three times 9/11. Within two weeks, they were all scrambling and bleeding money. It happened so fast, the bottom fell out.
Scott: Nick Calio is the president and CEO of Airlines for America, the industry group representing the major U.S. carriers.
Scott: What was the ‘oh-no’ moment for you, when you thought, we're going to literally be grounded?
Calio: March 1st, healthy companies, great balance sheets. March 16th, bleeding cash, and with the prospects of bleeding more. In April, we probably lost, I think, eight to ten billion dollars, our carriers, because no money coming in, no bookings, refunds being made.
Scott: Almost any industry would collapse under that weight.
Calio: Correct, and it can't be sustained. We're doing our best. We undertook all these self-help measures; voluntary leave, voluntary furloughs, voluntary retirements, doing everything we could.
Scott: Doing everything they could but at some points in the summer, the industry was losing five billion dollars a month. Airline CEO’s lobbied the president and congress. what they got was around $25 billion to keep most employees paid through the summer, but that didn’t address one of their biggest challenges: convincing passengers it’s safe to fly. We’ve come to Minneapolis to meet senior Delta airlines executive, Bill Lentsch, he’s the head of customer experience.
(video: Delta advertisement)
Bill Lentsch: I’m here to share some important steps we are taking to ensure your safety.
Scott: Right now, that means trying to figure out how to get people back in the air.
Scott: Domestic passenger volume down more than 60%, international nearly 90%. How do you get them back?
Bill Lentsch: We have this approach that it is people before profits, and we don't believe anyone will come back confidently until we can demonstrate that we are taking care of all of their personal well-being through the cleaning of our facilities. Every aircraft before every flight gets an electrostatic spray with a chemical known to kill the coronavirus. All of the common touch surfaces are hand wiped down before every flight. We are replacing the hepa filters in our air recirculation systems onboard our aircraft twice as often as the manufacturer says.
Scott: A lot of people would think of big corporations and roll their eyes at trusting whether or not any major company is going to put people before profit.
Bill Lentsch: I would just challenge anyone who believes that we would do something otherwise just give us a chance and come and experience what's happening at Delta. Yes, profitability is important and we need to turn to profitability in order to sustain ourselves long term but we don't believe we get there until customers feel confident they can get on our aircraft without having any risk of this transmission.
Scott: As people start buckling up again, some of the industry’s changes brought on by the pandemic will likely stay. Aircraft will be cleaned more regularly and there’s even discussion of an in-flight custodian for longer flights, but those empty middle seats, they aren’t likely to stay empty forever. The future of flying, still very much, up in the air.
Calio: We're going to come out of this a much smaller industry. There's no question, it's going to take time. After 9/11, it took three years to recover previous levels of people flying, after the financial crisis in 2008, it took seven years to get back to where we were in 2008. This could be an even longer recovery.
Scott (on camera): And there’s a deadline looming, under the CARES act thousands of airline employees had their jobs protected, that's about to run out.
Sharyl (on camera): What happens when the government money stops?
Scott: Well the airlines want Congress to come up with more funding, they want more money and at the same time they are asking employees to take those volunray leave to help avoid more job losses.
Sharyl: Alright, great update. Thanks Scott.