UPDATE: May 1, 2020
WOULD YOU like to hear a rundown of all the different ways COVID-19 is turning the commercial aviation business into a hellscape? A list of the various airlines that have ceased or suspended operations, maybe, or a synopsis of expected losses and long-term industry repercussions?
Me either. Because it’s changing day to day, and because summarizing it all is too depressing for me to handle.
Call me prescient. Some morbid gloating, maybe is all I’ve got left. In a post on February 27th, two months ago, I foresaw a scenario in which 80 percent or more of U.S. domestic flights would be grounded. This crisis would be significantly more disastrous than the events of 2001, I wrote, with one or more — or maybe all — of the major carriers staring at bankruptcy. At the time, the only canceled routes were to China. Nobody took me seriously. My colleagues all laughed at me.
The reality is already far worse. Carriers have grounded hundreds of planes and passenger volume has fallen more than 95 percent. How long this lasts, and what sort of industry eventually crawls from the ashes, is anyone’s guess right now.
A couple of weeks ago, Congress and the airlines agreed on a bailout package on the order of $60 billion. That raised a lot of resentment among politicians and the public. To be expected, I guess. Nobody likes the airlines, and nobody wants their tax dollars plucked away to save them. It’s also true that over the past six years, the biggest carriers squandered more than $40 billion in company profits on stock buybacks for their executives, leaving their companies with only a few months of operating cash should a worst-case situation like this one unfold.
The money isn’t a bailout per se. It merely covers employee wages for the next five months. Granted, wages are an airline’s largest expenditure, but together these companies will continue losing hundreds of millions of dollars per day. And what happens in September if travelers haven’t returned? It’s fair to say that if the lockdowns and quarantines continues for any length past the summer, the U.S. commercial aviation industry as we know it could be finished.
The huge irony is the modern commercial airline sector had been enjoying its longest-ever stretch of profitability and, no less important, stability. I can’t overemphasize that second point. For decades this was a cyclical business of wild highs and crushing lows. The nadir of this pattern was the airline apocalypse that followed the attacks of 2001. But in the years that followed, the industry regrouped, rebuilt and re-strategized. Among many changes were the three mega-mergers (UA/CO, DL/NW, AA/US) that helped consolidate operations and reduce overcapacity. By the mid 2000s it seemed like they’d finally landed on a business model that would guarantee consistent, long-term success.
But I suppose that’s the nature of the business. There will always be inherent, very unpredictable risks that can, on a moment’s notice, send the most profitable airline reeling. “Black swan events,” they call them. There’s no way around that. And those who’ve been in the airline industry for any length of time know it. We feel it, every time we go to work, even in the best of times. Nothing is ever certain.
In my career as a pilot I’ve worked for five airlines. I’ve been through three bankruptcies and a furlough that lasted almost six years. And for pilots, any threat is especially worrying because, should you find yourself laid off or your airline out of business, you cannot simply slide over to another one and take it from there. In the United States, the way airline seniority systems work, there is no sideways transfer of benefits or salary. If you move to a different company, you begin again at the bottom, at probationary pay and benefits, regardless of how much experience you have. This is how it’s always been, and there are no exceptions. You lose everything.
Airlines are doing best they can, adjusting on the fly, so to speak, to rapid and massive changes in demand. This in uncharted water, and nobody is fully certain of how best to handle it. As to which carriers survive, and in what form, it mostly comes down to how quickly passengers return to flying — plus good measures of perseverance, government assistance, and innovation.
And here’s a question: At what point is the cure worse than the disease? What doesn’t make sense to me is the scale of our reaction — the unfathomable vastness of it. The hysteria, the nonstop media amplification, the willingness to bring society to a grinding halt. It feels like we’re half a step from the end of civilization.
I understand the benefits of “flattening the curve.” The lockdowns aren’t about stopping the disease, they’re about reducing how many people are catching it at once. All of that makes sense to me. But is there not a way to accomplish this without laying waste to the entire global economy? Isn’t there an approach through which we can save the largest number of people without simultaneously throwing tens of millions of lives into chaos, and killing untold numbers indirectly through economic stress and unemployment?
What if the trickle-down effects of an economic wipeout cause greater and longer-lasting suffering than coronavirus would in the first place? Already in developing countries under lockdown — Philippines, India, Zimbabwe — people who were living on subsistence-level employment are literally starving to death. The United Nations says that lockdowns and quarantines could push up to one billion people into severe poverty. Here at home, if the pandemic triggers a depression, we could see the loss of income and health insurance for millions of people, increased poverty and homelessness, and on and on.
Is an all-out binary approach truly the wise choice? It may be that the morally correct option is to keep the economy running. Versus what feels like the morally correct thing. We wear masks and do our social distancing dances. But what if, in the long, run, we’re making life miserable for millions?
Meanwhile we keep hearing people make reference to “when this is over.” There’s a lot of talk and prognosticating about “after.” For example a friend says, “I don’t feel safe flying now, but after coronavirus I’ll be back.” Or, “Let’s hang out again soon, after COVID.” This is a flawed way of thinking. Because what constitutes “after?” Without a critical mass of immunity or a vaccine, coronavirus is not going away. It does not stop. There is no “end.” It becomes chronic and permanent. Initially the point was to flatten the curve. I think most people have forgotten this. Notice how the cheerleading has changed from “flatten the curve!” to “stop the spread!” The goal instead has become to simply not catch coronavirus, in the foolish belief that with enough social distancing and enough mask-wearing, it will simply disappear. Which it will not.
It’s kind of amazing, meanwhile, and a little distressing, how quickly people have acclimated to a very different way of living. If I see the phrase “new normal” one more time I’ll scream. Because nothing is normal. I want no part of this to ever seem normal — except maybe for the decline in carbon emissions and less trafficking of pangolins.
The reality is, when people are afraid they adjust very quickly, to almost anything, accepting ways of life that are ultimately harmful. I’m starting to see the specter of coronavirus as a new version of “terrorism.” The latter messed with the thinking and behavior of an entire generation after 9/11, when people — including our leaders — became self-destructive in response to a threat that, at a certain point, they could barely define or explain.
Though maybe I’m being paranoid. A lot of the predictions people made after 9/11 about how we’d change as a society turned out wrong. They said we’d become a less violent, less superficial, more introspective nation. The opposite happened.
A comparison with 9/11 also helps to explain how and why our response to COVID is becoming dangerously politicized. After the 2001 attacks, it was mostly people on the right who bought into the hype and fear; who saw terrorists around every corner and were willing to sign off on things like the Patriot Act, TSA, the Iraq War, and so forth. Left-leaning people resisted. This time, it’s left-leaning people who are the more fearful and pessimistic, while those on the right are advocating for a softer, more laissez-faire approach.
Both crises are similarly sinister in the way they they can warp people’s thinking and behavior. But they’ve attracted opposite crowds. Why? I suspect it’s because people who lean right are more naturally drawn to responses involving power and conflict; going after enemies, etc — all the things that came into play after 9/11. This particular crisis, on the other hand, centers on concepts like compassion and “saving people.” Thus it has galvanized that mindset instead of the more reactionary one.
Regardless of the reasons, the more this becomes a left/right conflict, the more entrenched the two sides become and the longer it’s likely to drag on.
So much about this is so bottomlessly frustrating. And with all of the amazing technology we have, how is this happening? Here in the richest country on earth, people can’t even get tested. This is why I always laugh when people propose how, no matter our self-destructive tendencies, “technology” will be there to save us from ourselves. How’s that working out? Look at coronavirus. Look at climate change. Look at the spread of false information. Technology is meaningless if the society that controls it has no idea what it’s doing. It barely needs saying: technology is much more likely to ruin us than to save us.
For years, as the population continues to grow and we continue to upset the natural order, experts have been warning of a coming pandemic. Ironically, this isn’t the one they’ve feared. It can be lethal, but COVID-19 is nowhere close to the catastrophe that many predict is inevitable. That is, a highly contagious, airborne virus with mortality rates of 30, 40, or 60 percent. I can only imagine our reaction to that one. Coronavirus is in many ways just a dress rehearsal.
And when these things happen, the airplane, bless it, is in many ways the focal point. If you’re an aerophile like me, you take a certain perverted pride in that. Such an important thing, this airplane. If you’re a normal person, you probably find it terrifying. As you should. Air travel is, if nothing else, an exquisitely efficient vector for the spread of pathogens. Not because planes themselves are incubators of disease, but because of how quickly they move vast numbers of people around the globe.
Once, after arriving in the United States on a flight from Africa, I noticed a lone mosquito in the cockpit. How easy it would be, I thought, for that tiny stowaway to escape into the terminal and bite somebody. Imagine an unsuspecting airport worker or passenger who has never before left the country, and suddenly he’s in the throes of some exotic tropical sickness. Actually, it’s been happening for years. Cases of “airport malaria” have been documented in Europe, resulting in several deaths after faulty or delayed diagnosis. It’s just a matter of time before this happens in America, if it hasn’t already.
In 2014, at the height of the Ebola crisis, I became ill on a plane returning from Ghana. It was mostly a gastric thing, but with a high fever as well. (To this day I’m unsure what the culprit was, but it’s not by accident that in all my trips to that country since, I’ve never gone back to Epo’s, a popular chicken and noodle place in the Osu neighborhood.) I wasn’t especially worried, and wanted nothing more than to grab my commuter flight home. But the Port Authority paramedics who met the plane had other ideas. Ghana was free of Ebola, but to them, “Ghana” sounded a lot like “Guinea,” where indeed the disease was raging. That’s literally all it took. Thus I found myself ordered into an ambulance and left alone for two hours in the parking garage at Jamaica Hospital, while the staff figured out what to do with me. Then another hour in a quarantine chamber while a nurse, costumed for Chernobyl or a voyage to Neptune, yelled at me from across the room.
“Look,” I said. “I don’t have Ebola. But whatever I do have, it’s getting worse the longer you leave me sitting here!”
Where I’m going with that I’m not sure. I suppose my point is twofold. First, to emphasize the dangers of hysteria. I was basically hospitalized against my will because the country I was coming from happened to begin with the letter “G.” But also, yes, to illustrate just how ruthlessly jetliners can, potentially, push contagions from one corner of the globe to the other.
To this point we’ve been lucky. Who knows what maladies the future holds, in a world moving full-speed toward environmental cataclysm. We will see this again, and next time it could be worse.