Going Direct: COVID-19 And Aviation: It Will Get Much Worse Before It Gets Better

Aerial view of Chicago Midway Airport
Aerial view of Chicago Midway Airport. Photo by Thomas Barrat/Shutterstock
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How soon will aviation be back to normal in the face of the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic? The signs are not good for a speedy recovery, though there are some pilots who are optimistic beyond all reason, like coronavirus is a passing fad. 

Yesterday someone left a comment on a Facebook post about just that, the timetable for things getting back to normal in the aviation world after the coronavirus pandemic. He said, apparently in all seriousness, that things would be just fine in two or three weeks. Instead of telling him exactly why this view was nonsense, I just wrote that I’d check back in with him around then to see how his prediction is holding up.

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Because as much as we all want COVID-19 and the disruption it has wrought to fade away, we need to face facts: This is just getting started.

What happened, and is still happening as I write, at Chicago Midway Tower is a case in point. The tower is being cleaned up after a few controllers tested positive for the coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 illness in many people. For older people, especially, though certainly not exclusively, it can wreak havoc on the respiratory system. The mortality rate is still being figured—we are dealing with a small sample size still, and the United States has next to no testing capacity for the virus. But experts put the rate at anywhere from 1 to 4 percent, meaning that for every 100 people who get the disease, one to four of them will die. 

As is the case in a lot of occupations in which workers are doing their thing in close quarters, before controllers get sick with COVID-19, before they can’t go to work any more, they will almost certainly get some of their coworkers sick, too. And with experts predicting that a huge number of Americans, more than 100 million, will eventually get the virus, ATC, like everyone else, will face a cripping shortage of controllers. The same is true for health care professionals. In some places retired doctors and nurses are being recruited to return to the workforce, despite the fact that if they’re older, as most retired workers are, the risk they face of death or grave illness from the virus is greater than it is for younger people. I think we’ll see this scenario play out in multiple professionals, from the TSA to grocery store workers, in which experienced workers are absolutely crucial if we want to keep the nation running in any semblance of order.

At Midway today the airport was being operated as a Unicom facility with the Chicago approach personnel serving as controllers up until planes are ready to transition to self-announcing their position. To some this might sound crazy, but there are a lot of airports with airline service that operate just this way, though none as big or busy as Midway.

And it hasn’t been without its negative effects. Southwest Airlines canceled 50 flights yesterday at Midway, a company hub, and it’s likely that they’ll stay out of Midway until the controllers have returned, which might well have happened by the time you read this. I hope it will have. 

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In a sad irony, the National Airspace System won’t be affected as much as it usually would be, as airlines are parking jets by the hundreds and working out deals to give their pilot employees extended, partial-paid leaves of absence. Planes are flying with greatly reduced passenger loads, terminals in some cities are like ghost towns, and the airlines are asking for a huge federal bailout, which despite their huge cash reserves, they’ll need if this goes on much longer.

And, again, everything points to the fact that we are just getting started. The effects will be wide reaching and economically devastating. They already have been, with markets tumbling and layoffs beginning. It’s an unprecedented time for America, one that calls for an unprecedented standing together and standing strong.

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