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COVID-19 Pandemic Hitting US Air Travel Hard

By Kelly Hoggan

The current COVID-19 global pandemic has hit U.S. airlines particularly hard, forcing them to slash flight schedules and temporarily ground thousands of airliners at airports across the country. Those air carriers are also now looking at mass layoffs of thousands of employees for lack of work. With air travel coming to a near halt, airlines have also had to get creative in finding places to park their planes, too. Airports have been trying to help and they’re allowing air carriers to utilize now-closed taxiways and runways, though that situation may change, as space for doing so is growing increasingly scarce. To free up more room, older planes are being given an early and permanent retirement in one of several desert locations. None of this paints a pretty picture for the U.S. airline industry at the moment.

Quarantines, Travel Bans

COVID-19 appears to be highly infectious and governments at all levels have been imposing a variety of quarantines and shelter-in-place or self-isolation orders in an attempt to halt the virus’s spread. Add in national and international travel bans and social distancing policies and the net effect is a staggering plummet in air travel, not only in the United States but around the world.

As well, some smaller regional ‘feeder’ airlines that funnel travelers to their larger cousins via code share and other agreements may shutter completely in an attempt to conserve resources for as long as possible. All carriers are hoping federal aid approved under the recent massive stimulus spending and bailout bill signed into law by President Donald Trump will soon provide some much needed relief. At least $50 billion in federal money is being made available to U.S. airlines to help them deal with the unexpected downturn in business.

Flight Schedules Drastically Reduced

For at least April, many of the largest U.S. carriers have cut their flight schedules by up to 80% and what flights are still operating often fly nearly empty. Airports that teemed with travelers just a few weeks ago often feature terminals and concourses which sometimes resemble ghost towns at certain times of the day, including major hubs such as Chicago and Atlanta. Even Southwest Airlines, the nation’s largest and most successful point-to-point carrier is parking planes and cutting its schedule as it advises employees of the need for it to conserve cash. Initially, the airline had reduced flights by 25% but that’s since risen to 40%, with more than 1,500 daily flights between airports around the country now cut.

Reduced Screening Numbers

With so few flyers taking to the skies for the time being, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration has seen a huge drop in the number of people it screens on a daily basis. On the first day of March, almost 2.3 million people passed through its security checkpoints. By March 29th, however, only 180,000 across the country and its more than 470 commercial airports had done so, marking a staggering drop in screening numbers of more than 92 percent from the month’s start. In 2019, TSA screened an average of 2.2 million passengers daily, a figure well in line with 2020 numbers until COVID-19 began its global spread back in early January.

TSA’s screening officer workforce and other personnel haven’t been immune to the virus, either. As of March 30th, the security agency reports 63 screeners have tested positive for COVID-19. Another 20 non-screening employees who have relatively limited exposure to the traveling public also appear to have been affected by the coronavirus.

Riding the Storm Out

Faced with the need to continue operating even a drastically reduced flight schedule -- if only to keep some planes and flight crews in the air and practicing their skills -- some airlines are pitching in and helping in the effort to fight COVID-19. Delta Air Lines, for example, is offering free flights in April to medical volunteers looking to fly to areas of the country which have been significantly impacted by the virus. At present, eligible medical personnel traveling to Georgia, Louisiana and Michigan to aid state and local governments in fighting COVID-19 can book free round-trip travel on the airline. The carrier’s website contains information on how medical personnel can take advantage of the offer.


With so many states issuing shelter-in-place or other self-isolation orders to remain in effect at least through the end of April it’s difficult to say when airlines will see a return to normal operations. President Trump just recently extended federal social distancing guidelines through April 30th, for instance, and many states will mirror or even go beyond federal efforts in this regard, depending on just how hard COVID-19 hits them.

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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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