Airlines Don’t Expect Rapid Growth When Pandemic Social Distancing Restrictions are Eased

A Spirit Airlines Airbus 320 arrives in Cleveland after a flight from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Airlines are expecting low passenger counts even after the COVID-19 pandemic social distancing restrictions are eased or even removed.

Although state officials in recent days have spoken about easing their social distancing orders and allowing some businesses to reopen, airline industry observers expect the demand for air travel to continue to lag.

Some have predicted airlines will become smaller and have fewer employees.

The CEO of Southwest Airlines has reportedly approached his company’s labor unions about making concessions on wages and benefits once the emergency air from the federal government is exhausted and if traffic doesn’t immediately rebound.

Southwest, which is viewed as one of the nation’s best-managed airlines, has never imposed pay cuts or layoffs in its 49-year history.

In a recent message to employees, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz said the carrier had fewer than 200,000 passengers in the first two weeks of April compared to more than 6 million during the same period in April 2019.

United expects to carry fewer passengers this May than it did on a single day in May 2019 and to slash flights by 90 percent of the normal schedule.

Munoz expects the return of business after social restrictions are eased to be slow because many will remain concerned about the pandemic and the health risks of commercial air travel.

A writer for The Motley Fool, a financial investment firm, predicts it will take at least two years or longer for the airline industry to the level of traffic it had before the pandemic began.

The writer, who said he is optimistic that the airline industry will survive its economic headwinds, expects air travel demand to be muted for the rest of 2020.

Some carriers might not survive the economic downturn and the fate of others hinges on how quickly the travel market recovers.

The federal emergency aid ends on Sept. 30 and worker layoffs could follow.

United’s management has told its employees to expect a smaller workforce as early as Oct. 1.

American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said bookings for travel later in the summer have shown a slight rise and there may be a gradual recovery in the third and fourth quarters of 2020.

The conditions attached to the federal emergency airline aid has put some carriers in a dilemma.

They don’t want to offer the minimal levels of service that accepting the aid requires, particularly continuing to serve the airports they flew to before the pandemic struck.

The industry apparently thought that the U.S. Department of Transportation would allow them to temporarily drop numerous markets.

But DOT has not been inclined to allow that and has denied all but one of the requests for low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines for exemptions to the serve all airports rules.

Allegiant Air and Sun Country Airlines are also blanching at DOT’s position.

DOT has said that so long as airlines keep one flight to each city they’re in compliance with the law. The flights need not be daily.

Many airlines have fulfilled this requirement by ending all but one flight to some cities.

But discount carriers such as Spirit are unable to reduce 90 percent of their schedules and still meet the law’s intent because they favor typically once a day point-to-point service rather than flying to giant connecting hubs with multiple flights throughout the day.

Low-cost airlines say most of their passengers are leisure travelers and that market is virtually non-existent right now.

A recent story in the Los Angeles Times said that those still flying include airline workers going home after work shifts, medical staff traveling to regions hit hard by COVID-19 outbreaks, some business travelers, and people going to help family members affected by the pandemic and social distancing measures.

Some travelers are also heading home after having vacations, school terms and work assignments cut short by the pandemic.

The Times report said those flying in recent weeks described the experience as a mixture of anxiety over the increased risk of being exposed to the virus and amazement at near empty airport terminals and airplane cabins.

Airline officials say it is difficult to determine which passengers aboard their flights are flying out of necessity versus leisure travelers.

Far less affected by the pandemic have been cargo carriers that are operating pretty much their scheduled flights.

In some instances, passenger airlines are using their planes to fly cargo.

Food service aboard flights, even in first class, has been eliminated or reduced to box meals in order to minimize contact between passengers and flight attendants.

With so few passengers flying, there is plenty of room for those aboard to spread out as a form of social distancing.

“They pretty much sit there and watch movies on their computer and sleep because they have an entire row to themselves,” said Rock Salomon, an American Airlines flight attendant based in Boston. “My last trip to Phoenix had less than 20 passengers on each leg.”

Although airlines are not mandating passengers to wear gloves or masks, they have encouraged that practice while allowing flight attendants to wear them while interacting with passengers.

In the meantime, another battle has begin over refunding canceled tickets.

Airlines are generally offering passenger who cancel flights during the pandemic travel vouchers rather than cash refunds.

Three U.S. senators issued a statement saying the industry is sitting on $10 billion in travel vouchers.

The senators said airlines have been obfuscating the right of passengers to receive a cash refund by offering travel vouchers as a default option and requiring passengers to take burdensome steps to request refunds.

New agency Reuters said it reviewed the responses the senators received from the nation’s major airlines as to their refund practices and found that most carriers did not share the total value of the travel vouchers and credits they have issued during the pandemic.

Some carriers said they are following U.S. Department of Transportation guidelines which require cash refunds if an airline cancels a flight.

But only Allegiant and Spirit indicated they are offering cash refunds as a first option for passengers who voluntarily cancel their tickets.

Low-cost carrier Sun Country said offering cash refunds to all passengers who cancel their reservations “would put the company’s future at risk.”

American Airlines said more than 90 percent of its passengers who were offered a refund for flights the company itself canceled chose that option over a travel voucher.

Some of the travel vouchers that passengers who do not specifically request a refund are being issued will expire within a year.

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