Americans are flying much less during the pandemic. Will airlines survive?

Discussion:

U.S. airlines are sending out warnings about huge financial losses and urgently requesting help. Tens of thousands of flights for the fall have been canceled, and change fees have been eliminated in order to attract travelers. Meanwhile, flight staff and security are being drawn into arguments with passengers who refuse to comply with mask mandates. Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There are troubles in the skies.

    Major airlines are sending out warnings about huge losses. And they are making pleas for help in a big way.

    Tens of thousands of flights are canceled for the fall. Plus, change fees are now eliminated to attract travelers.

    Paul Solman has the story for our series Making Sense.

  • Man:

    All these people on the plane. I didn’t get in nobody’s face.

  • Paul Solman:

    Call them mask wars being waged on tarmacs everywhere.

  • Alexander Bejaran Estevez:

    On my last flight, there was actually a gentleman that refused to wear a mask, and so they had to bring in airport security.

    And the person from airport security said, like, hey, we already had this conversation at the gate. So, the airport security took him off the plane.

  • Paul Solman:

    As they escorted this woman off to a sitting ovation.

    No wonder so many passengers now have a fear of flying, even Nick Ewen, an airlines journalist.

  • Nick Ewen:

    I have personally not taken a flight since March 1, and that is pretty unheard of.

  • Paul Solman:

    And if you do want to fly, like NYU Professor Paul Glimcher:

  • Paul Glimcher:

    it’s really hard to imagine jumping on a plane and flying out to NYU Shanghai, because the Chinese government wouldn’t let me go. The U.S. government wouldn’t let me come back.

    (LAUGHTER)

    There’d be two weeks of quarantine at either end. I mean, it seems impossible.

  • Paul Solman:

    And thus the facts on the ground: passenger volume down some 70 percent from last year, about 2,000 planes in drydock, because airlines need them to run at least 80 percent full to make money. Former Spirit Airlines CEO Ben Baldanza:

  • Ben Baldanza:

    If they’re not going to be able to fill that much, they’re going to have to get a higher price.

    When the prices go up, many fewer people choose to travel. And so, if airlines are going to have to rely on a higher price point because the planes aren’t as full, there are going to be many fewer planes in the air, because they’re not going to be able to support as big a fleet.

  • Paul Solman:

    So the industry is faced with an ever more pressing question: Is this the new abnormal?

  • Nick Ewen:

    If the traveler is confident that they are going to have a minimal risk of contracting COVID-19 when they go to the airport and when they get on board a plane, that’s really when we’re going to see a rebound in the overall market.

  • Paul Solman:

    Airlines are pushing new safety measures, disinfecting assiduously, filtering the air every few minutes. Carriers like Southwest, JetBlue and Delta are restricting capacity.

    And some passengers are flying worry-free, like Timothy Strack.

  • Timothy Strack:

    I have flown, approximately, I believe, nine legs, and I have not contracted COVID. I have tested negative consistently. And I will do it again soon.

  • Paul Solman:

    But many more former travelers are staying put.

  • Holly Stettler:

    It would probably be a while before I truly felt safe. And that’s just a product of the career I’m in and the things I have seen.

  • Paul Solman:

    Nurse Holly Stettler, who’s treated COVID patients, was disturbed that her partner’s recent flight was fully booked, American and United Airlines opting to maximize sales on the planes they are flying.

  • Holly Stettler:

    The pilot made an announcement that said, we have a really full, full flight today, so if you have trouble finding overhead bin space, let us know, which, in my opinion, during a pandemic, there should not be any flight that is flying that is so full that you cannot find overhead bin space.

  • Paul Solman:

    And there are the non-mask-wearers during this politicized pandemic.

  • David J. Harris Jr.:

    For all the people on the plane that may want to get off because they don’t feel safe, then get the heck off. I’m staying right here.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Paul Solman:

    Some are belligerent, says Sara Nelson of the flight attendants union, who told us about one of her members.

  • Sara Nelson:

    The passenger hit her, assaulted her.

  • Paul Solman:

    For enforcing the mask policy?

  • Sara Nelson:

    Yes. The passenger became violent against the flight attendant and hit her and hurt her. And she is recovering from that now.

  • Paul Solman:

    Nelson says the federal government needs to impose rules and penalties to force compliance.

  • Sara Nelson:

    There’s not clear communication about how to wear those masks, that it’s necessary to wear the mask, and that there’s consequences if you don’t.

  • Paul Solman:

    Leaving the policing to the airlines themselves, despite the fact that over 1,000 flight attendants have been infected and at least 11 have died.

  • Sara Nelson:

    There is a picture of a man right behind me. His name is Paul Frishkorn. And he was the first flight attendant to die. He was a friend of mine.

    And he stays here with me while I do this work on safety and on protecting our jobs.

  • Paul Solman:

    Jobs. Thousands of workers have already taken buyouts, with the airlines warning that more jobs, tens of thousands, could be cut once $25 billion in CARES Act aid runs out in October.

  • Yolanda Hughes:

    To just think about not being able to fly again, it’s devastating.

  • Paul Solman:

    Yolanda Hughes is a flight attendant for United Airlines. She’s kept her job and health care for now, but has no guarantee of hours or pay.

  • Yolanda Hughes:

    We don’t have enough people traveling to support the personnel that we do have. So, we are begging the administration, we’re begging our representatives and our congressmen to please help us.

  • Paul Solman:

    The airline, which was $17 billion in the first half of the year, is asking for another $25 billion in federal aid.

    Pandemic relief talks have stalled in Congress, but the president says he will support the industry.

  • Nick Ewen:

    I think it is very likely that we will see at least one notable bankruptcy among the U.S. airlines.

  • Paul Solman:

    And it’s not just because travelers are afraid to fly. Many now realize they don’t have to.

    Ben Baldanza isn’t afraid, but he says:

  • Ben Baldanza:

    There is some business travel that is not going to come back, because they’re — they will have gotten so comfortable with the way we’re talking right now…

  • Paul Solman:

    Exactly.

  • Ben Baldanza:

    … and how productive they can be…

  • Paul Solman:

    Yes.

  • Ben Baldanza:

    … that they’re just going to say, I don’t need that expense.

    (COUGHING)

  • Ben Baldanza:

    Excuse me. I’m really sorry.

  • Paul Solman:

    If I were there in person, would you be more comfortable than you are right now?

  • Ben Baldanza:

    There’s just more complications about it. I mean, I coughed twice in this call, and that didn’t make you nervous. If we’d been live, that might have made you nervous.

  • Paul Solman:

    And yet another problem, airlines are alienating customers with their reluctance to refund.

    Sign language interpreter Betty Colonomos has been trying to get her money back since March.

  • Betty Colonomos:

    This has almost become a 20-hour-a-week job chasing after these refunds, because the phone calls, the e-mails, the waiting.

  • Paul Solman:

    But she’d purchased flight insurance. The response to her claim?

  • Betty Colonomos:

    Oh, well, we categorize coronavirus to be something under the certain category of we don’t cover that, and blah, blah, blah.

    So, I said, great. I got insurance in case something happens. And guess what? Something happened, but they’re not owning it. So, here I am.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Paul Solman:

    Are you flying again?

  • Betty Colonomos:

    No, I am not flying, and I have no intention of flying.

  • Paul Solman:

    And so the big question: When will enough folks take to the skies once again?

    Right now, 52 percent of travelers say they’re uncomfortable flying, like Professor Andrew Caplin (ph) and his wife, psychotherapist Ruth Wyatt (ph).

    They had planned to go, she says:

  • Woman:

    On a snorkeling trip in Indonesia about a month before COVID hit. But I don’t want to get on an airplane. I don’t really want to travel.

  • Paul Solman:

    How many years before you actually take that trip to Indonesia, do you suppose?

  • Woman:

    Three?

  • Man:

    Five.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Paul Solman:

    Anybody give me six here?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Paul Solman:

    Professors Heidi and Richard Brooks both had COVID in the spring. He was hospitalized.

  • Man:

    My antibodies are still robust. And I feel, because of the antibodies, a little bit more comfortable traveling than I imagine most people.

  • Paul Solman:

    Wife Heidi had a milder case.

  • Woman:

    It is a risk, but we can’t necessarily lock ourselves into never being in another country again.

  • Paul Solman:

    But even the Brooks’ travel plans are on hold until 2022. And the airlines don’t expect a rebound until 2024.

    For the “PBS NewsHour,” Paul Solman, not flying anywhere.