Airlines face record drop in travel amid virus outbreak in US
Air travel in the United States sank to its lowest level in decades in March amid the coronavirus outbreak, according to the Department of Transportation, and experts say airlines and passengers have a bumpy road ahead as they grapple with the new post-pandemic reality.
“Without a doubt, it’ll change a lot of things,” said Dean Headley, co-author of the Airline Quality Rating and emeritus professor of marketing at Wichita State University. “Airlines are going to try to get back to normal because they had a pretty profitable approach before all this, but I don’t think we’re going to get back there anytime soon, if at all.”
A report published in Fox San Antonio says U.S. airlines carried half as many passengers in March 2020 as in the same month in 2019, and flight traffic has plummeted even further since. According to trade group Airlines for America, airlines have seen passenger volume decline 93% year-over-year, and demand for future travel is down 94%.
Meanwhile, consumer complaints about airlines have skyrocketed, with the Department of Transportation reporting more than 25,000 complaints in March and April, largely from customers upset they were denied refunds for canceled flights. The department issued an enforcement notice reminding airlines of their obligations to passengers under consumer protection laws, though they are not required to refund tickets canceled by the passenger.
“The Department has received an unprecedented volume of complaints from passengers and is examining this issue closely to ensure that airlines’ policies and practices conform to DOT’s refund rules,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said in a statement. “The Department is asking all airlines to revisit their customer service policies and ensure they are as flexible and considerate as possible to the needs of passengers who face financial hardship during this time.”
The airline industry received billions of dollars under the CARES Act, but the money came with some strings attached. To get the bailout, carriers must maintain a minimum level of service and they are prohibited from laying off employees through September and restrictions have been placed on dividends, stock buybacks, and executive compensation.
“Airlines are in ‘survival mode,’ trying to stem the flow of red ink and live for another day,” said Joseph Schwieterman, director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University. “They will need support the of airport authorities and public health agencies to dramatically change the way they run their business. That will take time.”
Getting Americans back in the air might not be easy, though. As states loosen restrictions on voluntary travel, airlines and airports are instituting safety measures some might find too onerous even as others fear they do not go far enough.
Several airlines are calling for temperature checks at airports that would be carried out by carriers or the federal government. Others are requiring or recommending all passengers wear masks, though they have already encountered some pushback on that. Some are limiting the use of middle seats in three-seat rows, but planes are still fuller than many fliers would like.
“The social distancing is the real problem for the airlines because its hard to get six feet away from anybody in an airplane,” Headley said.
Christopher Anderson, an expert on the travel industry at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, suggested this crisis could lead to changes in aircraft and seating design to limit contact and density.
“Airlines might have different seat configurations – wider middle seats, seats that face each other allowing for more space between passengers,” Anderson said. “I think this will expedite the move to smaller more fuel-efficient aircraft like the Airbus a220 which can still fly long haul flights, but with fewer passengers and more space.”
Even if travelers are not eager to fly right now, airlines are seeking ways to entice them. Southwest launched a monthlong sale Tuesday with one-way fares for summer travel ranging from $49 to $99.
“We’re all eager to move again in a new chapter that feels more familiar, and Southwest is giving customers the freedom to dream and the inspiration to confidently recapture the magic of travel,” Ryan Green, Southwest's senior vice president and chief marketing officer, said in a statement.
Experts say it will likely take more than a few months to “recapture the magic of travel.” Without a coronavirus vaccine or expansive testing and tracing protocols, many Americans will want to avoid trips that place them in close proximity to others for extended periods of time.
“COVID-19 is a global pandemic, and if we’ve learned anything from other extraordinarily impactful events like 9/11, it is that it takes years return to ‘normal,’” said Evan Jordan, an assistant professor at the Indiana University-Bloomington School of Public Health and host of the Trip Doctor podcast. “In this case, ‘normal’ will likely not be what we had in the past, but something that will evolve over time as we overcome the psychological impacts of the pandemic on our perceptions of the safety of travel.”
It took about three years after 9/11 for air travel to recover, according to Headley, and that was in response to a much more tangible threat that could be identified and arrested.
“The big thing is overcoming the customer’s fear,” he said. “Airlines can do a lot, but they have to ensure the customer they’re going to be relatively safe. That’s hard to do in any meaningful way.”
Schwieterman expects airlines will roll out more aggressive public health policies in the months ahead to try to provide that certainty. Eventually, once fears of a renewed outbreak fade, he sees little reason the aviation industry could not fully bounce back.
“Over the long term, [I expect] the effects to be modest,” he said. “All the drivers of demand, including affordable fuel, improved technology, and rising interest in leisure trips, point to a return to the historic growth trend. The next several years, however, will be painful.”
For now, though, airlines are in a difficult position. They need revenue to survive, and that means filling up flights to at least 75% capacity to remain profitable. According to Headley, carriers want to be seen as doing the right thing and caring for passengers, but the reality is, if they can sell tickets, they will, and they will only change their practices if fliers demand it.
“One thing I’ve learned over 30 years is airlines really want profits first,” he said. “They try to take care of people. They want to look like they take care of people. They genuinely put an effort forward, but at some point, finances take over.”