As COVID-19 spreads deep into America, the case counts are climbing more steeply than a souped-up backcountry Super Cub, and the impact to the airlines and aviation community as a whole is escalating proportionately. In recent days, we’ve seen cuts to capacity and routes scaling up as air carriers park more airplanes and more nations have announced travel restrictions.
Delta Air Lines, which just days earlier had announced cuts of 40% to its capacity, now plans to curtail 70% of its flying, parking more than 600 aircraft. Other airlines are making equally significant cuts. United Air Lines announced cuts of 75% of its international flying, and 40% to its US and Canada schedule.
Carriers with limited international exposure seem to be weathering the storm somewhat better, and those with a ton of cash in the bank are in an even better position. JetBlue, whose routes cover the United States, the Caribbean and parts of Latin America, had announced a 10% reduction which has now been moved up to 40%. JetBlue had significantly depleted its cash reserves in stock buybacks, possibly explaining its deeper cuts than Spirit Airlines, which announced cuts of 20% in April and 25% in May. Industry analysts have pointed out that perhaps Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines are best set to weather the storm owing to their route structures and cash reserves.
All this travel reduction has pilots concerned at all stages of their careers, from pre-solo students to late-career widebody captains. As we reported recently, a flight school with a large contract for training Chinese students shut its doors abruptly, and most major airlines have ceased hiring. When movement at the top of the career ladder stops, there’s nowhere for those on the lower rungs to go.
In fact, some pilots at the regional airlines have lost their rungs on the career ladder altogether. Trans States Airlines had been in a gradual drawdown for closure at the end of the year. This week, the carrier announced their timeline got significantly shortened and will cease operations April 1. This series of events is so sudden that it outpaced the carrier’s profile on Airlinepilotcentral.com, which still says they are hiring at a rapid clip, with bonuses and agreements for career progression into Frontier Airlines. Trans States is the only carrier in America to put pilots on the street against their will so far, but in Canada several airlines have issued layoff notices, including Air Transat, whose business is largely international routes, and Sunwing, a carrier that heavily targets leisure travel.
Airports used as maintenance bases and storage facilities have seen their patterns filled by arriving jets, inbound to be parked for short- or long-term storage. Some fleet types, such as Delta’s 757/767 and MD-88/90 series, are being retired ahead of schedule—their lack of fuel efficiency and age earmarking them to most likely stay in the desert even when air travel begins to rebound.
Air Traffic Control has also felt the squeeze this week as controllers have tested positive at facilities including the towers at Chicago’s Midway Airport, as well as Las Vegas international and Detroit Metro Airports. These facilities issued NOTAMS closing most runways and temporarily closed the tower. Several sharp-eared listeners to LiveATC.net caught airline pilots issuing the dreaded “Any traffic please advise,” call on CTAF as 737s tangled with at least one Skyhawk that took advantage of the newly created Class E airspace to tear up the pattern for multiple landings. (Editor’s note: Just because you can, doesn’t always mean you should.)
The bumpy ride is far from over. JetBlue made it a point to mention their cuts are “so far” and subject to revision as the demand ebbs and flows into the future. Some optimists have predicted a “V” pattern for the downturn and recovery; other analysts say it will be a long road to recovery. A $50 billion proposal from the White House aims to soften the impact to airlines, but that idea is already being debated by analysts and pundits who seek all manner of strings attached, including limits on stock buybacks and executive compensation. Others have rallied to mandate job protections tied to the proposal. We’ll keep you apprised as this volatile situation continues to develop.