I was not a pilot in the airline industry during and immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I was in the US Air Force stationed in Arizona and will never forget the events of that historic and tragic day. Globally, passenger travel was one of the hardest hit industries, just as we are experiencing today. I had many friends in the industry then and I have heard some wild stories about what flying was like that day, as well as during the subsequent weeks, months, and even years. It changed air travel forever. I worry we may be experiencing a similar industry-changing event, for which only time will tell the lasting impact.
In January, COVID-19, better known as Coronavirus, was not a top of mind news item for many travelers. Our federal government was only beginning to take a cursory look into it. At this point in our short virus history, I was a pilot on reserve in Philadelphia. I was enjoying the first-world troubles of making sure I made my commute to work, watching the College Football and the NFL playoffs, and wondering what it was going to be like in February when I moved bases to New York City. By the end of the month, President Trump initiated the travel ban from China for foreign nationals in a small attempt to stem any progress the virus might make in coming to American soil.
In February, I started my life as a LaGuardia, JFK, and Newark-based First Officer in one of the busiest airspaces in the United States. I was pretty excited as I was no longer on reserve. I had a commutable schedule that didn’t require an inordinate number of hotel stays or AirBnB reservations, and I was flying some pretty awesome trips. The crews were a pleasure to fly with and overall the area has some of the most interesting people with an eclectic style that is uniquely New York City. We were flying passengers all over North America. Our planes were packed full. Meanwhile, the captain and I worried more about what crew meal we would get than a virus streaking through a city named Wuhan. Little did I know what March would bring.
As March flying began, Coronavirus rose to prominence in the national and international news cycles. US testing for the virus was still pretty slow and phrases like “social distancing” and “flatten the curve” were becoming commonplace. The early part of the month was pretty good. Loads were normal and we were still flying to international destinations in Latin America and the Caribbean. Stories continued to emerge about the sick and the dying. Italy became a hot spot and European travel was essentially halted by mid-month, save a few flights to London and repatriation flights for our citizens.
As March continued, I remember Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) had its first report of a TSA agent, who was screening international passengers, contracting the virus. The next day I flew into LAX. I knew of the news story and was sure the case was in the international terminal. We were on the domestic side, but it was still in the back of my mind. By this time, the CDC guidelines were simple: wash our hands for 20 seconds, use hand sanitizer when we can, and masks would not be necessary. Restaurants were still serving in-house meals and things seemed pretty normal.
It was the breakfast I had right around the middle of the month, with a captain I highly respect, that raised my neck hairs. We were having a burrito in the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport and he dropped the f-bomb: furlough. It’s one of the scariest words in the airline industry, save for accident and engine failure, and with it, he had my attention. He told me about 9/11 and his experience in the airline aftermath. Additionally, he detailed some of the differences and similarities to what was currently happening. Even during this conversation, we were still surrounded by quite a few passengers, though there was an air in the place that made me feel the demand numbers were about to fall. And fall they did!
Within a week and a half of that conversation, the Coronavirus started hitting air traffic controllers, aircrew, ground crew and the country. Las Vegas’ control tower shut down for about a week and the airport was turned into an uncontrolled field, just like your local airpark. Crazy was the word I kept using to describe what I was seeing in real time. Passengers load counts fell precipitously. The lowest number I witnessed was seven passengers on a plane built to carry over 190. There were more aircrew than passengers on some flights. Schedules were a mess. We never knew if we would be deadheading or flying our next scheduled flight. Sometimes we didn’t receive a cancellation call until mere hours before departure.
One of my last flights for March was to Las Vegas where the tower had just been reopened the day prior. It was a ghost town upon arrival, like so many others I had been flying through. I could count on my hands the number of passengers I saw in the terminal. No one was plunking coins into the brightly-colored airport slot machines because they had all been turned off to avoid spreading the virus. The next night upon arrival at the airport for our last two legs of the trip, the only vehicles on the departure curb were a few airport police cars, and our hotel van: not a single passenger. It felt as though I was in a scene straight out of Steven King’s novella, The Langoliers.
April and May have been far stranger. By April 10th, the airline I fly for made the forward thinking and smart decision to suspend all originating flights out of New York City’s Big Three airports and to only fly a handful of flights as turns from other hubs. At first it was just going to be for the month of April, but demand in the month of May, along with the health dangers to our crews (thank you to our leadership), led them to extend the cancellations through the end of the month.
Also, all training was suspended starting in mid-April and recently resumed this past week. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has given all major air carriers some reprieve on training and currency requirements set out in the Federal Aviation Regulations. This has been a huge help to the airlines and has given them some breathing room to allow for the massive impact on daily flight and training operations.
For me personally, the last day I flew an airplane was April 5th. I am still current and will remain that way going forward. I have standard recurrent simulator training coming up so passengers need not worry about safety. We have the safest air traffic system in the world because of the professionalism and training of crews across the aviation industry. On top of all that, Congress passed the CARES Act on March 27th, which has been a blessing for the airline industry and all its employees. It has given some much needed breathing room for the major carriers to make payroll, but demand will have to come back quicker than 9/11, in order for the F-word to remain unspoken come October 1.
I talked to colleagues who have flown the past month and half, and things are looking better. TSA screenings are increasing and recently surpassed 500,000 per day, the first time the number of travelers had surpassed the half million mark since March 21st. However that is still nowhere near the 2.2 million average we were seeing a few short months ago. We celebrate the small victories! Several of my colleagues have also witnessed higher capacity flights, despite policies in place to leave middle seats open or capping capacity at 50% of maximum. Future bookings will hopefully spring back for next year, though things may look somewhat different, especially on the international side of each airline’s respective operation.
No one knows what the future holds for air travel, or all of the mass transit industry in general. Many things may change, or even better become temporary. We can only hope that demand bounces back to something resembling normal when we all reach the other side of this crazy time.
Inline images: Jeremiah McBride