Mar 6, 2020 - Health

Coronavirus rattles travelers — and airlines

Illustration of an airplane on a  grid with an contrail shaped like a downward trending chart line

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Not since the aftermath of 9/11 has there been such a fear of flying.

Why it matters: The novel coronavirus has the airline industry bracing for the worst downturn since the Great Recession. Even though the government says it's safe to fly domestically, the drumbeat of news about COVID-19 has cautious employers stifling business travel and worried families rethinking their summer vacation plans.

Driving the news: Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said Thursday the sudden drop in domestic air travel "has a 9/11-like feel."

  • "We could discount prices tomorrow and it wouldn’t do any good," said Kelly.

What's happening: Travel agents are being inundated with calls and emails from panicked clients canceling trips and seeking refunds.

  • "Travel agents have to become psychiatrists, OK? We have to become therapists for all these people who call in," Tammy Levent, CEO of Elite Travel, told NPR.
  • Usually, she's able to talk them off the ledge. "I've had one cancellation in all of our thousands of clients, which was to Japan."
  • Even those who bought travel insurance aren't necessarily protected because many policies explicitly exclude epidemics or "known events."

Citing a collapse in travel bookings, airlines are slashing capacity and making emergency cost cuts, even offering employees unpaid furloughs.

  • United Airlines cut international flights by 20% and domestic flights by 10%, while British Airways canceled flights between London's Heathrow and New York’s JFK airports, a key source of revenue.
  • More than 1,000 planes have been taken out of service worldwide amid concerns the slowdown could extend into the busy peak summer season, says the Wall Street Journal.
  • Airline stocks have fallen 28% since the coronavirus outbreak began around the first of the year.

And the crisis comes as airlines are already reeling from the year-long grounding of Boeing's 737 Max to fix software issues after two deadly crashes.

A global industry trade group is sounding the alarm, and even asking governments for help.

  • "In little over two months, the industry’s prospects in much of the world have taken a dramatic turn for the worse," according to the International Air Transport Association.
  • "Whether we see the impact contained to a few markets and a $63 billion revenue loss, or a broader impact leading to a $113 billion loss of revenue, this is a crisis."

The public's fear of flying may be overblown, fanned by a wave of cancellations of big trade shows, conferences and events — anywhere there are large groups of people.

  • People think being strapped into an airplane next to someone who might be ill is just as risky.
  • Because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes, most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on airplanes, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
  • A team of public health researchers found that airline passengers in window seats are less exposed to germs while people seated on the aisles, or those who get up and move around during flights, including flight attendants, are more susceptible, National Geographic writes.

Studies by the University of North Carolina and others have found coronaviruses can survive on surfaces for days.

  • Airlines typically give a cursory cleaning to planes between flights, although many airlines say they are taking extra steps to disinfect planes amid coronavirus fears.

What they're saying:

  • Vice President Mike Pence reiterated it is safe to fly on domestic and international routes except from areas covered by U.S. travel advisories related to coronavirus (China, Iran, South Korea, Italy and Japan).

The bottom line: The pain is acute for airlines at the moment, but the industry bounced back vigorously after 9/11 and the 2003 SARS epidemic. People have short memories.

  • "It's definitely a gut punch right now, but hopefully it will be short lived," said Kelly.
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