Pandemic has set the number of air travelers back decades

Several dozen mothballed Delta Air Lines jets at Kansas City International Airport in Kansas City, the US. The number of Americans getting on airplanes has sunk to a level not seen in more than 60 years as people shelter in their homes to avoid catching or spreading the coronavirus. (AP)
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Updated 10 April 2020

Pandemic has set the number of air travelers back decades

  • Airlines and consumers grounded by the effects of the coronavirus outbreak

NEW YORK: The number of Americans getting on airplanes has sunk to a level not seen in more than 60 years as people shelter in their homes to avoid catching or spreading the new coronavirus.

The Transportation Security Administration screened 94,931 people on Wednesday, a drop of 96 percent from a year ago and the second straight day under 100,000.

The official tally of people who passed through TSA checkpoints exaggerates the number of travelers — if that is possible — because it includes some airline crew members and people still working at shops inside airport security perimeters.

Historical daily numbers only go back so far, but the nation last averaged fewer than 100,000 passengers a day in 1954, according to figures from trade group Airlines for America. It was the dawn of the jet age. The de Havilland Comet, the first commercial jetliner, was just a few years old, and Boeing was running test flights with the jet that would become the iconic 707.

As air travel became safer and more affordable, the passenger numbers grew nearly every year until 2001. There was no commercial air travel in the US for several days after the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and people were slow to get back on planes — US passenger traffic didn’t grow again until 2003.

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United Airlines said it is losing $100 million a day while Delta Air Lines claims it is burning through $60 million a day.

It could be longer this time. Polling firm Public Opinion Strategies said that fewer than half the Americans it surveyed about 10 days ago say they will get on a plane within six months of the spread of the virus flattening.

TSA, which was created after the 9/11 attacks, has been chronicling the plunge in air traffic, posting numbers on how many people its officers screen each day. 

On March 1, it was nearly 2.3 million — almost the same as a year earlier. The one-way roller coaster ride — a sheer downward scream — began in the second week of March and slowed only in the last several days, when there wasn’t much more room to drop.

“The falloff is amazing to see,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst. “The good news is that it shows people are taking shelter-in-place orders seriously.”

Some of the people still traveling are health care professionals on their way to pandemic hot spots such as New York, where they will help in the treatment of COVID-19 patients. A few are traveling to be with family.

The nation’s largest flight attendant union, which is worried about the safety of its members who are still flying, is demanding that the government ban all leisure travel. Representatives at several airlines said they don’t know how many leisure travelers are left, since they don’t routinely ask people why they are flying.

Airlines have drastically cut the number of flights to match demand and save cash, but even with far fewer flights, most seats are empty.

United Airlines says it is losing $100 million a day. Delta Air Lines says it is burning through $60 million a day. All the leading US carriers have applied for federal grants to cover payroll costs through September and some are likely to seek federal loans or loan guarantees.

Even if they get taxpayer help, the airlines warn, they will be smaller on the other side of the pandemic.

The recovery in air travel — whenever it occurs — could depend on many factors including social-distancing rules and the state of the economy, which is staggering as 16.8 million people — one in every 10 workers — filing new claims for unemployment benefits in the last three weeks.

Air travel is much more affordable and accessible to the masses than it was in the 1960s. Still, both leisure and business travelers have above-average incomes.

“Theoretically, these consumers should be better-positioned financially to be able to travel again,” Harteveldt said, “but we are seeing people at all income levels and all ages affected by job loss or reduction in hours or working for companies that have closed.”


Greece readies revival of coronavirus-hit economy

Updated 04 June 2020

Greece readies revival of coronavirus-hit economy

  • Tourism accounts for around 20 percent of Greek gross domestic product
  • Greece desperately needs to attract visitors this year

ATHENS: Greece geared up Thursday to revive its tourism-dependent economy, which shrank in the first quarter owing to measures against the coronavirus, the Elstat data agency said.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is to headline an event later in the day to unveil a national tourism campaign for the virus-shortened season.
He has already warned the country that the economy would fall into a “deep recession” this year before rebounding in 2021.
Tourism accounts for around 20 percent of Greek gross domestic product (GDP), so it is crucial that visitors be attracted back to the nation’s beaches and iconic island villages.
Toward that end, Greece has announced a ‘bridge phase’ between June 15 and 30, during which airports in Athens and Thessaloniki will receive regular passenger flights.
Other regional and island airports are to open on July 1.
Greece plans to impose a seven- to 14-day quarantine only on travelers from only the hardest-hit areas as identified by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).
Sample tests will also be carried out at entry points for epidemiological purposes however.
Provisional data released by Elstat showed how important it is to get the tourism sector back on its feet.
GDP fell by 1.6 percent in the first quarter of 2020 compared with the previous three months, and by 0.9 percent year-on-year, the data showed.
But data for March alone showed that month was not as bad as expected, government spokesman Stelios Petsas told a press conference.
Now, “Greece is opening its gates to the world under safe conditions for tourism workers, for residents of tourism destinations and of course, for our visitors,” he said.
With fewer than 180 coronavirus deaths among 11 million residents, Greece seeks to market itself as a healthy holiday destination.
On Tuesday, Athens said it was suspending flights to and from Qatar until June 15 after 12 people on a flight from Doha tested positive for COVID-19.
Earlier Thursday, Greek media reported that a first batch of nearly 190 tests among residents of the Cycladic islands, one of Greece’s most popular destinations, had turned up negative.
The country desperately needs to attract visitors this year.
The latest finance ministry estimate suggests that for 2020 as a whole, business activity could drop by up to 13 percent from the level in 2019.
Between 2009 and 2018, Greece suffered its worst economic crisis in modern times, and had begun to slowly regain some of the lost ground before it was hit by the impact of coronavirus restrictions.
The country was shut down for six weeks, and the International Monetary Fund forecast in May that GDP would decline by 10 percent this year before growing by 5.5 percent in 2021.