Kyle Arnold

Summer travel surge has airlines scrambling to unwind cuts

Airlines are planning for a surge in summer travel that could make skies look like it’s 2019 again, but it will take a lot of work to get planes and employees ready. The four big U.S. airlines — American, Delta, United and Southwest — have more than 650,000 flights scheduled for June, which would make it even busier than the same month in 2019, according to Diio by Cirium, an aviation data analytics firm. Carriers are looking to capture pent-up travel demand and momentum from the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. “It’s a good problem to have with so many people expected to fly,” said Allied Pilots Association spokesman Dennis Tajer. “But it takes a long time to crew up an airplane and try to undo the cuts from the last year.” The airline industry has shed more than 41,000 employees since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. That includes more than 10,000 at American and 4,600 at Southwest. But that understates the depth of the cuts because many crewmembers are still working reduced hours with fewer flights taking off and landing. “Really, we’re just gearing up for the May schedule, which is looking to be about 80 percent of summer 2019,” said American Airlines spokeswoman Lindsey Martin. That could change soon. Almost exactly a year after U.S. airport traffic dropped to less than 100,000 passengers during the worst stretch of the COVID-19 pandemic, airlines are now facing the enormous task of getting employees and planes ready to fly again. Airline advanced bookings and customer surveys are showing that travel could bounce back this summer, even if international and business travel lag behind. That means getting mothballed aircraft and employees ready over the next six weeks. The last of American Airlines’ 8,000 flight attendants who were furloughed in October will be back on schedules as of May 1. It could take through the end of the year for all of American’s 1,605 pilots to return from furlough after going through training updates, getting vaccinated and finishing other regulatory work needed to fly again. American’s 17,500 furloughed employees have been getting paid since Dec. 1 thanks to $12 billion in government payroll support, but there hasn’t been enough flights until now to justify bringing employees back to work. Dallas-based Southwest Airlines said this week that it would recall 209 pilots from voluntary leave they signed up for last summer, when pandemic uncertainty reached its peak. American Airlines reported last month that bookings were approaching 90 percent of 2019 levels, prompting the Fort Worth-based carrier to announce that it would bring back most of its fleet by this May. Southwest also reported a surge in new bookings starting in the middle of February. Industry optimism got a further boost around spring break travel, with the streak of 1 million or more travelers passing through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints now standing at 27 straight days. “The flights have been full all winter to any beach destination or outdoor destination,” said Paul Hartshorn, a spokesman for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants representing workers at American. “There haven’t been as many hours available everywhere, but if you are somewhere like Charlotte or Dallas, it’s been quite busy.” Last week, airlines were about 75 percent full, by far the fullest since the pandemic began. Much of that is attributable to the fact that airlines are still flying about 40 percent fewer flights than they did before the pandemic. “It will take some work, but remember that we are still going to end this year a third below where we were in 2019,” said Michael Boyd, an aviation consultant with Boyd Group International. “There are still people waiting for the government to open up travel and for businesses to say their workers can get on planes again.”

American Airlines expects full fleet back this spring after major increase in bookings

American Airlines expects to “reactivate most of its aircraft in the second quarter” after seeing a major increase in bookings that has brought business back to near pre-pandemic levels. Fort Worth-based American, which lost more than $8.9 billion last year as the air travel industry reeled from the COVID-19 pandemic, gave a slightly more positive outlook for the spring quarter in a regulatory filing March 29. It said developments with the coronavirus have prompted customers to start looking to travel again. “However, as infection and hospitalization rates have materially declined and vaccine distribution has increased during the quarter, the company has experienced recent strength in domestic and short-haul international bookings,” the filing said. “As of March 26, the company’s seven-day moving average of its net bookings is approximately 90 percent of the level experienced in 2019, with a domestic load factor of approximately 80 percent during that same period.” American said it expects the bookings trend “to continue through the end of the first quarter and into the second quarter.” Airlines have reported a string of good news in recent weeks. Airlines, including American and Dallas-based Southwest, have reported that ticket purchases started picking up in mid-February. A pandemic record of 1.5 million passengers went through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints on March 28, adding to the string of million-plus passenger days during March after months of stagnation in passenger traffic. Passenger traffic has topped 1 million for 18 straight days. But positive developments with COVID-19 vaccine distribution and a drop from peak infections in January have prompted people to start flying again, or at least looking to fly later this year. There is also the fatigue from a global health pandemic that is more than a year old. Chicago-based United Airlines even said earlier this month that it could stop daily losses by the end of March if booking trends continue. American was still burning through about $30 million a day at the end of 2020. Load factor is a measure of how full planes are. A load factor of about 80 percent means that planes are nearly a full as they were in pre-pandemic times, although the airline is only flying about 60 percent as many flights as it did before COVID-19. This summer could be a major test as airlines ramp-up schedules. But the air travel industry is still missing major segments of flyers that still haven’t returned, namely international passengers and business passengers. “We’re seeing a nice uptake of like in the short-haul international, but we haven’t seen much of yet as domestic business or long haul international domestic business,” American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said at an industry conference on March 15. Of course, many planes won’t be coming back even if traffic does. American accelerated the retirement of its Boeing 757 and 767 and Airbus A330 aircraft, older jets that burn more fuel than new generation planes like the Boeing 787 and Boeing 777. Many of those larger jets weren’t being used during the COVID-19 pandemic anyway because long-haul international flying has been mostly shut down. But airlines are starting to bring back a handful of transatlantic and transpacific flights to places such as Madrid, Paris and Tokyo, meaning those big planes with longer range will be needed once again.

Can technology make flying feel safe again?

Across the world, the aviation industry is scrambling to find ways to keep the COVID-19 risk out of airplanes with high-tech filtration and advanced cleaning. American Airlines has partnered with medical advisers at Vanderbilt University and its competitors have made similar moves. Every airline is requiring masks. Southwest Airlines has adopted the “Southwest Promise,” which includes limiting capacity on flights to allow passengers to social distance. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to turn the airline industry upside down with no end in sight, suppliers are preparing for the inevitable future where cleanliness and germ-fighting is a high priority for customers. North Texas manufacturer Aereos thinks antimicrobial plastics may be one solution to help cut the risk of spreading COVID-19 on commercial airline flights. And Dallas-based Allied BioScience has gotten government approval to spray a disinfectant coating in planes that’s billed as killing germs for up to a week. With commercial air traffic still at historic lows and passengers continually wary of flying, Aereos says it has brought antimicrobial technology to high-touch surfaces inside commercial jetliners, such as tray tables, armrests, door handles and toilets. The antimicrobial technology can cut down on the growth of germs and virus such as COVID-19, Aereos partner David Baker said. “It’s just starting to catch a lot of interest,” said Baker, whose company recently released the line. “Especially considering that it’s a pandemic, it’s one way of making them feel comfortable. This provides them with a layer of protection.” Fort Worth-based American Airlines and Allied BioScience received emergency approval last month from the Environmental Protection Agency for a spray-on coating product that is intended to protect against COVID-19 and other germs for at least a week. The perception of heightened cleaning and hygiene on commercial aircraft is a “huge deal” to consumers during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Jamie Larounis, a travel consultant and writer for “This, in combination with social distancing efforts, is what is building consumer confidence that the airlines are doing their part to provide a safe experience,” Larounis said. It’s unclear how much of the novel coronavirus is spread via surfaces, but airlines are still touting enhanced cleaning procedures along with state-of-the-art air filtering technologies, face masks and social distancing. Companies are experimenting with ultraviolet lighting to help kill COVID-19 and Southwest is testing thermal imaging cameras to detect fevers among passengers. “The primary and most important mode of transmission for COVID-19 is through close contact from person-to-person,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Based on data from lab studies on COVID-19 and what we know about similar respiratory diseases, it may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this isn’t thought to be the main way the virus spreads.” Aereos, based in Euless, makes replacement interior airplane parts and custom cabin items, such as tray tables, latches, toilet seats and window shades along with carts and other items used by flight attendants. Baker said the company started experimenting with antimicrobial additives on those parts in May and has them ready for sale to airlines looking to replace aircraft parts. Aereos makes the parts at its North Texas manufacturing facility. The company also does work in the aerospace sector in maintenance, overhaul and defense, but the COVID-19 pandemic has created problems for nearly every corner of the airline industry, Baker said. The antimicrobial technology has grown popular over the last decade in hospitals to cut down on infections and in some medical supplies and devices. The plastics don’t completely kill viruses such as COVID-19 on contact but instead work to inhibit the growth of viruses and germs, slowing down the life of contagions. “Current evidence suggests that SARS-CoV-2 may remain viable for hours to days on surfaces made from a variety of materials,” according to the CDC’s website. That leaves airlines, airports and even government agencies working to reduce touch points during the air travel experience at security screening points, at gates and on airplanes, evidence at least that there is concern that touching objects can spread viruses. Baker said he doesn’t have any independent research on how effective the plastics are, but tests within the company have been promising. “Very little had to be changed about what we do, and it essentially costs nothing extra,” Baker said. “We don’t expect airlines to go out and replace every single part, but you could start replacing parts as they break or on an airplane one at a time until your whole fleet is done.”
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