Airline industry leaders and government officials are considering a plan to ground all domestic passenger flights in the U.S.
Air carriers haven’t reached an official decision yet, but they’re struggling to keep flights running with minimal passengers. Industry leaders are considering several options for addressing the problem, but a potential halt of all domestic air travel could be the only viable option.
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U.S. airlines already made major cuts to international flights, and the industry plans to scale back domestic flights by as much as 40%. However, it’s likely that those steps won’t sufficiently address the issues at hand. A recent Transportation Security Administration (TSA) report revealed that passenger flow last Sunday was down more that 80% from the same day last year.
The airlines canceled thousands of flights on Monday, mostly because the planes didn’t have enough passengers to justify the trip. Many flights reported passenger counts in the single digits.
\One flight between New York’s Laguardia Airport and Washington D.C. had only three passengers on board. In responses, American Airlines and United Airlines reported canceled over 40% of their flights that were scheduled on Monday. Flights aren’t expected to start filling up any time soon, so many experts believe it’s only going to get worse.
Passenger volume is only a small part of the problem. The air travel industry faces significant operational problems as well. Airports are concerned that the outbreak could cause shortages of air-traffic controllers and other essential personnel. A staffing emergency could literally make it impossible for airports to operate in some parts of the country.
The COVID-19 outbreak has already caused significant disruptions to the nationwide air-traffic control network. Almost a dozen air-traffic control facilities have been temporarily closed for deep cleaning, with large numbers workers being instructed to self-quarantine.
Replacing air-traffic control personnel presents a serious problem for the FAA because it typically takes months to train these highly-skilled workers. If the virus continues to spread amongst the traffic-control network, officials might be forced to shutdown large swathes of the nationwide network.
Government officials have placed restrictions on several different industries, but the Trump administration has been hesitant to halt domestic passenger flights. After all, commercial flights don’t only carry passengers. They also transport a significant portion of U.S. mail and other shipments of essential cargo.
Just over the weekend, a representative from the White Houses’ virus task force told reporters that there are no plants to “seriously consider” grounding domestic passenger flights.
In order to ease the strain on airlines, the White House could activate the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF); a reserve of commercial jets that are set aside to assist the Pentagon during national emergencies. If the White House or Pentagon decides to activate CRAF, those planes could begin delivering cargo, military medical staff, and other vital supplies. The fleet includes roughly 400 planes, so it could serve as a vital lifeline if domestic passenger flights are grounded.
It seems like the airlines would prefer to shutdown for a week or two to let things die down, but the industry would much rather have the government enforce a mandatory halt. Many airlines have labor contracts that require them to maintain a minimum number of flights, so a voluntary shutdown puts some carriers at risk of violating those agreements.
Furthermore, the airlines will have a better case for federal bailout money If the government orders the shutdown.
The airlines are going to have a hard time generating revenue for the next few months, but don’t feel too bad for them. They should do everything in their power to support the country during this time of crisis if they expect the American taxpayer to bail them out.