The only thing spreading faster than the coronavirus is fear about the coronavirus. With the federal government seemingly unable to produce the promised number of tests for COVID-19, popularly known as the coronavirus, it's unclear exactly how many infected people there are in the U.S. But it's clear that the virus has spread via air travel, and that has made people worried about flying.
In an interview with CNBC on Thursday, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly admitted that there was a "very noticeable, precipitous decline in bookings'' comparable to what the industry saw after 9/11. Airlines have cut flights to severely affected countries like Italy, South Korea, and China, while companies are cancelling conferences and scaling back on business travel.
As airline stocks fall, the actual victims in a slowdown of air travel will be the workers far below Kelly on the org chart, the ones for whom canceled flights mean lost income and potentially lost jobs.
One flight attendant for a major airline who did not want to be named because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media said that he and his coworkers were possibly more skittish about the downturn than catching the virus. People in the industry, from Kelly to flight attendants, remember the slumps caused by previous disease outbreaks like SARS, which led to airlines asking Asian governments for assistance in 2003. They also remember the aftermath of 9/11, when so many flights were cancelled and so many people refused to fly that Congress passed a $15 billion bailout package to protect airlines.
"They've been through this, and they're worried," the flight attendant said of his veteran colleagues, some of whom have been flying longer than he's been alive. "These people who have lived through SARS, MERS and 9/11 are like, OK this is buckle-down time."
Airlines have already begun to tighten their belts. On Wednesday, United announced that it is reducing the number of U.S. and international flights and offering workers the ability to take unpaid leave, a move praised by the Association of Flight Attendants as being better than the possibility of layoffs.
The flight attendant VICE spoke to noted that at least some workers on leave would have benefits, but he won't be considering it on account of owing $1,300 a month in student loans. His older coworkers who were flight attendants during downturns have described how voluntary leave could be the first step in a process that might include voluntary furloughs, meaning no benefits, or splitting schedules between two workers, before actual layoffs.
Anthony Cucuzza, an official with the Transportation Workers Union, which represents some airline workers, agreed. "There is always the concern of an airline invoking what's known as force majeure, where they would basically claim that the impact of the economic impact of this virus is basically an act of god," said Cucuzza. "They could then begin the furlough process indiscriminately, regardless of contractual obligations."
For those employees who will continue to work, there is concern about exposure both on and off the plane.
Cucuzza praised the response of some companies like JetBlue, which has been providing gloves and Clorox wipes to flight attendants when they clean the aircraft. Alaska Airlines has said that it would allow workers to wear gloves during beverage service and to stop refilling cups, which risks exposing them to more germs. The flight attendant said that his airline has given employees instructions about what to do when confronted with a sick passenger, which includes breaking out a kit with masks and thermometers and getting the pilot to call a company called Medlink for advice. (Recently a Canadian family headed for Paris was kicked off the plane after the pilot consulted Medlink.)
These measures are among the precautions that the Association of Flight Attendants has asked airlines to take. But airlines haven't complied with the whole list—none of these companies seems to be keen to allow flight attendants to wear face masks during flights for fears that it would make passengers nervous. "Right now the perception out there is that you don't really need a mask, but people do feel comfortable wearing a mask. It gives them peace of mind," said Cucuzza. "But the airlines at this point would never consider allowing their front line employees to wear masks… in the presence of passengers."
Individual workers are doing what they can. "I'm washing my hands constantly," the flight attendant told VICE. His company has given him sanitary wipes, but not hand sanitizer, so he improvises. "What I and a lot of flight attendants do is we'll douse our hands with a bottle of gin… It's the highest-proof alcohol that we have on the aircraft, at least on my aircraft." (Experts have advised that hand sanitizer needs to be at least 60 percent alcohol to be effective, and the vast majority of spirits have less alcohol in them than that. Washing your hands the normal way is the best option.)
Other air travel–related businesses have been less proactive than the airlines. Nate Pleger, a restaurant worker in Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport, said that many of his coworkers don't even know that there is an outbreak. "Other servers, bartenders, they literally have no idea what's going on," he said. "I haven't seen anyone washing their hands more than they normally do."
His company hasn't provided hand sanitizer to employees or guests, he added, and there hasn't been any kind of communication about whether they're at risk. "I feel like management should have like a pre-shift meeting at least with all of us and say, look, here's what's happening. Here's the precautions that we need everyone to focus on," he said. (VICE reached out to his employer, a company that owns many airport restaurants, for comment but did not receive a reply.) Plegar is worried that if fewer people fly, he'll lose tip income.
As for the airlines, if enough people do choose to stay at home—or if business travel restrictions and government advisories keep them grounded—companies will have to respond to the falling demand. It's easier to get upgrades to first class now, according to Summer Hull, the family travel columnist at the Points Guy, a travel and lifestyle website. Airlines have made more flights open to purchase with rewards miles, indicating that they're trying to attract customers more aggressively than normal. "This will translate to cheaper prices sooner or later if the demand continues to soften," said Chris Lopinto, president of ExpertFlyer, a website that tracks airfare.
This week, a budget carrier in China was offering flights for as little as $4. While airlines outside China aren't doing anything like that, they might quietly slash prices. "We are seeing airlines do sales," said Hull. "Whether that's coincidental or not they won't say, I'm sure."
But Kelly, the Southwest CEO, didn't think that price reductions would encourage people to fly. "The economy is strong. People have money," he told CBNC. "They have the means to travel and to spend. This is they don't want to fly, for the obvious reason.''
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