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COVID-19 Impacts Global Air Travel

By Kelly Hoggan

COVID-19 has reduced air traveler numbers through some TSA checkpoints.

Global air travel and the security apparatus that helps protect it have both been greatly affected by the current COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the imposition of international air travel bans and the closing of borders by the U.S. and many European and other foreign countries have led to large reductions in both international as well as domestic flight schedules among most airlines. Plus, the Transportation Security Administration and other U.S. security agencies as well as the Federal Aviation Administration are feeling the effects of the novel coronavirus due to reported cases of infection among their personnel.

Airlines Hard Hit

Airlines around the world, and especially in the U.S. and Europe, are being hit hard because of travel ban impositions and the resulting slowdown in air travel. For example, many companies are postponing or canceling entirely air travel by their employees and shifting to teleconferencing and other workarounds. In the U.S., several states have issued ‘shelter in place’ orders aimed at preventing widespread social contact among their residents. They, as well as states that haven’t as yet resorted to shelter-in-place orders, have also ordered restaurants, movie theaters, malls and other places where people congregate to close their doors or greatly restrict operations. Overseas, several countries have also closed their borders in an attempt to slow down or halt the spread of COVID-19. The cumulative effect on air travel has been severe, to say the least.

To cope with the drop in travel, carriers have been slashing flight schedules on both international and domestic routes, and sometimes greatly so. In the U.S. the major carriers have all announced near-halts in international flights while they’ve also moved to slash their domestic schedules by as much as 70% as air travelers cancel vacation or other travel activities to avoid large airport and airliner crowds as well as other social contact situations. Airports are no doubt feeling the drop in air travel as shops, stores, shuttle companies and other revenue-reliant entities begin to feel the hit to their bottom lines.

Airline Revenue Losses

U.S. carriers, experiencing big hits to revenues, are asking employees to accept voluntary leave and also expect to furlough personnel as well. How long such measures will be needed is difficult to say at this point. U.S. president Donald Trump and several state governors have all said they’ll reexamine the need for travel restrictions and shelter in place orders as more data about the spread of COVID-19 becomes available, but there’s no hard and fast date as to when any restrictions will be removed or modified. At least in the U.S., air carriers are working with the federal government on loan packages and other monetary assistance to help get them through what’s shaping up to be the worst hit to their financial health since 9/11.

Transportation Security

Security hasn’t proven to be immune to the effects of the coronavirus spread, either, as TSA, FAA, Customs and Border Patrol and other U.S. agencies having a hand in ensuring flight safety and security have all seen employees test positive for COVID-19. Given the sheer number of air travelers that many TSA officers and inspectors interact with on a daily basis, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that several of them have reported infections. TSA looks constantly at its officer and inspector ranks, however, and makes continual adjustments to its staffing at airport security checkpoints and other areas. If there’s one sure thing about TSA, it’s that its ability to adjust staffing to demand is without compare and the air travel slowdown should present no unique challenges to its operations, including at airport checkpoints. It will be able to ensure full and complete security coverage even in the face of potential COVID-19 infections.

Aviation Safety

The Federal Aviation Administration, which is responsible for U.S. air traffic control and oversees all airline safety and aircraft maintenance programs, has also reported an increase in cases of COVID-19 at air traffic facilities across the nation. Just as with TSA, though, the FAA isn’t compromising on its mission and has instituted plans to ensure flying continues to remain both safe and secure.

Fluid Situation

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause disruption in daily life and across a wide swath of industries, and this is especially so when it comes to global air travel. At present, it’s not known just how long governments at all levels will maintain travel restrictions and social distancing policies which, when combined, affect travel in a myriad of ways. For his part, President Trump has promised to reexamine current U.S. restrictions on March 30th. We’ll continue to update as more information on this fluid situation becomes available.

Kelly Hoggan, Founder and CEO of H4 Solutions, previously served as assistant administrator for operations at the Transportation Security Administration. In that role, he was responsible for aircraft and checkpoint security operations at the nation's 400-plus commercial airports.

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