Aviation’s slow climb back

The COVID-19 pandemic has decimated many industries, but few more so than aviation. 
2019 was a golden year for aviation. Airlines repeatedly set new bars for profits and traffic. Employees that had been through years  turbulence were suddenly enjoying unprecedented profit sharing. Carriers were thinking outside the box and adding new routes daily. Mid-sized airports, such as  Madison Wisconsin punched above their weight and suddenly offered options to every corner of the nation. By all counts, 2020 looked to see that upward path continuing.

COVID-19 had other ideas.

Initially, this seemed to be a repeat of previous pandemics, such as SARS. To be sure, that had a negative impact on the industry, but was mostly contained to Asia. It soon became clear that COVID wasn’t going to obey any geographic construct, and no region was spared. 

The fallout was swift. Starting in March, traffic plummeted. The bottom falling out in mid-April. According to this spreadsheet on the popular aviation site Airliners.net, volume hit bottom on April 16th, with just 3.6% of travelers Year over Year. 

I have spent my entire adult life in aviation, and have experienced multiple shocks to the system; SARS, 9/11, N1H1 flu, the financial collapse of 2008, etc. None of these can compare to what the last 6-7 months have been like. This crisis is worse than all of those combined.

In late spring, it wasn’t unusual to spend my entire workday at the airport without seeing a single traveler. On a few occasions, I literally wouldn’t see anyone at all.  Carriers maintained the minimum flights required to access funding under the CARES Act, but that didn’t mean anyone was actually onboard. 

Soon, these flights would see passengers, but not college kids heading south for Spring break, or business travelers off to close a deal. Instead, it was health care workers shuttling to provide critical care in early hotspots.  Each flight suddenly took on a very real air of gravity. All of us wondered if we’d ever see daylight.

Slowly though, traffic started to rebound. Starting with a (relative) spike around Memorial Day, and slowly trending up through the summer, people are coming back. 

To be clear, traffic is still a fraction of what it was. The TSA posts updated numbers daily. Total volume is hovering around 30% of 2019’s numbers. It’s also important to note that with most borders closed to Americans, these numbers are comprised almost totally of domestic travel. With business travel basically nonexistent, they also represent the (generally) less profitable leisure travel.

Airlines have torn up their traditional playbook regarding networks, and shifted capacity to where they think people want to go. Normal market titans like New York City were out, and cities in the Mountain West were in. Florida was also an early leader, as people wanted to chase the sun. 

The Labor Day-Thanksgiving period is normally as bit of a dead-zone for traffic, as kids head back to school. In most years, business travel fills that void. Not so in 2020, and capturing traffic remains a challenge. And yet, the numbers show there is still some demand. Humans by nature like to travel, and interact with each other.

It will take some time, but aviation’s slow climb back will continue.

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