Uncertain future for airlines and air travel as pandemic hammers industry

Some airline officials say the fallout from the global coronavirus pandemic is the biggest challenge they've had to face.

United Airlines Chief Communications Officer Josh Earnest called the sustained decline in the number of people now booking flights unprecedented.

"The airline business is going through the worst crisis we faced in 93 years," he said.

The TSA reported it screened 96% fewer people on April 8 than it did on that day the year before. By mid-April, the Official Aviation Guide reported a nearly 60% decline in the number of daily flights in this country, many operating at less than 15% capacity and likely only still flying at all in order to qualify for some of the $50 billion allocated by the federal government to bail out the industry.

"Here's the thing people need to understand," Earnest said of those billions, "it covers only part of our labor cost."

And, as Earnest explained, none of those bailout dollars pay for jet fuel or parts or planes, placing the near and more distant future of this industry—and those hundreds of thousands it employs—in jeopardy.

United's CEO and president each gave up their salaries for the year. All of the company's corporate executives cut their incomes in half. Tens of thousands of employees at United and Delta have volunteered to take unpaid leave. Both of those airlines also reportedly cut worker hours, leading to a lawsuit arguing United violated the terms of its bailout requiring airlines to not force furloughs or layoffs until the fall.

"We're frustrated with the FAA," Capt. Joe DePete, the president of the Airline Pilots Association, told FOX 5 NY.

DePete represents more than 63,000 commercial pilots at 35 airlines in this country and Canada and wants the FAA to mandate and not just recommend the CDC guidance for masks and other protective equipment, stopping the current patchwork of compliance in this nation's airports and on its airplanes.

"If you're dealing with a pandemic," DePete said, "that makes absolutely no sense."


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JetBlue, American, Delta, Southwest and United now all require masks. Most airlines have also overhauled their cleaning procedures. United started employing electrostatic sprayers used in hospital rooms to clean its aircraft. Delta plans to limit seating capacity to just 60%.

"We are primarily safety-focused at the moment," DePete said.

DePete believes when consumers see flying as safe again, that should provide his members and all those employed by the industry the job security they now lack—if they can retain their jobs for the many months or few years it may take to arrive at whatever comes after this coronavirus air-travel downturn, and whenever that after begins.

"We know people are going to come back to air travel," Earnest said, "but until they do we need to make sure that the company can survive."

American and Southwest Airlines declined to comment. Delta, JetBlue and Alaska did not respond in time for this story to make air.