As the airline industry grapples with the health and economic consequences of COVID-19, one might be tempted to look at…
Opinion: Even During a Pandemic, Domestic Air Travel Remains a Necessity
I recently came across an opinion piece by a fellow aviation reporter, arguing that domestic air travel in the U.S. essentially needs to be halted as COVID-19 cases grow by the day. I am certainly not discrediting Mr. Sumer’s opinion as the article itself does make several valid claims, nor am I saying that social distancing and staying home to quell the spread of this virus isn’t important. It absolutely is.
On the contrary, however, I do not believe halting domestic travel, whether it be government-mandated or a privately-initiated decision, is the correct answer at this point.
Putting a stop to domestic air travel in the U.S. will do more harm than good. For starters, perhaps the most obvious point is that America is geographically massive. Getting from one place to another without air transportation can take days by rail or automobile. For many, this sort of travel just isn’t viable, especially if the reason one is choosing to fly is due to a dire situation.
By “many,” I am referring to the people who need to travel for essential reasons. Not everyone can stay home. Medical personnel, government officials and others with legitimate reasons still need air travel to be their mode of efficient transportation from one place to the next.
Taking a car ride across the country just isn’t a suitable option when time is of the essence.
JetBlue Airways, for example, flew dozens of volunteer medical personnel to New York City, one of the hardest-hit areas during this pandemic. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo praised the company and its efforts saying in a tweet, “Thank you JetBlue for transporting the vital personnel we need. So grateful for the help.”
Even as this pandemic ravages communities and nations, various government bodies, including Congress, still need to function. This is also where commercial air travel plays a critical role.
— Rep. Dusty Johnson (@RepDustyJohnson) March 27, 2020
With the Transportation Security Administration reporting its lowest number of passenger screenings on record at 122,029 on Sunday, it is evident that few are traveling and most are doing so because they have to.
Gone are the days of mileage runs or impertinent leisure trips. Commercial aviation now truly connects people when it is needed the most, and while the White House and health organizations urge individuals to socially distance, that is far easier said than done for a select few.
If one were to take a sampling poll of why people are traveling right now, I am almost certain that most wouldn’t say that they are going on a seven-day-long vacation to Aruba. Their reasons would likely be much deeper, graver and essential to the continued basic functionality of our nation.
Indeed, airlines are operating as skeletons right now as many have reported capacity cuts that top 70 percent across their respective networks. Many are also reporting unprecedented financial losses in the wake of the virus.
An industry that was more-or-less flourishing two months ago is now “in the fight of its life,” as one American Airlines executive stated. Aircraft are empty, flights are being canceled and major airports are ghost towns.
Airlines are still absolutely essential to the U.S. economy, even when everything else is collapsing. That is where the CARES Act comes into play and there’s a reason it doesn’t allow airlines to significantly cease operations, even if most routes are bleeding money.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security lists the aviation industry as part of its Critical Infrastructure Sectors. The designation as well as the Department of Transportation mandating that U.S. airlines continue flying domestically, even at a reduced rate, simply invalidates nearly-weekly reports that U.S. government officials and/or airlines are considering a closure of all domestic operations.
It is clear that airlines and government officials recognize the sheer importance of preserving basic domestic travel right now. Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly told employees in an internal video, “We are essential to keeping the country open and keeping the country running, and people, even in this scenario where travel is discouraged in many ways, people have to go.”
Kelly’s quote tags along with a common theme among airline executives. While airlines could indeed save money by stopping flying altogether, the industry is critical, and aviation history says the government will support major airlines through these times, for better or worse.
Stopping domestic flights altogether simply isn’t a viable option. As the pandemic continues, everyone’s focus should be on testing, slowing the spread and supporting health care workers.
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