Pandemic
Perspective
THURSDAY, MAY 14, 2020 -- You want perspective? Here's some damned perspective:

         The Transportation Department this week said March air travel plunged 51 percent compared to March, 2019, putting volume on a par with September 2001, the month of the 9/11 terror attacks.
         Internal government estimates predict 3,000 daily deaths from Coronavirus by the end of the month. If that sounds familiar it's because 3,000 is the number of dead from the 9/11 terror attacks.

So we're back to 9/11, are we? No, frankly, it's worse than that. TSA figures indicate only a small fraction of people flew in April compared to March, 2020, or September, 2001. And as horrific as 9/11 was, it was one day. We're looking at a 9/11 death toll every day atop the 85,000 who have already fallen.

Please be angry. Maybe spit on your screen. Those numbers are hellish. They are brutal. And I refuse to sugarcoat them to make you feel a little less awful.

We're destroyed. As a nation. As a society. And, yes, as a traveling community. Nothing will ever be the same. Nothing can ever be the same. Nothing should be the same ever again. We dishonor ourselves the moment we try to minimize or rationalize or explain human misery on that scale and the destruction of an industry like air transportation.

We are destroyed. We'd better start getting used to it. We'd better start making plans to deal with it. To look awfulness in the eye and start telling ourselves the truth: The airline industry is essentially dead and we're on the verge of a 9/11 every day.

But I promised perspective today, too. Here's what I can see. I think it is worthy of your consideration.

THE CORONAVIRUS IS AN AIRPLANE
Remember 2019, when things were slightly less rotten and we were consumed with what now seems like the trivial matter of the Boeing 737 MAX? Remember what I told you then? Aircraft are always a balance of cost and safety. A safe plane is one that never flies. But if you choose to fly it, there's always a cost calculation: How much safety do you build in? How much risk is not worth the cost? What are the odds and how much money do you throw at those odds to ensure human beings don't die?

The Coronavirus is an aircraft. Do we keep the nation shuttered to slow the spread and save lives, but wreak havoc on the economy? Do we open up to save the economy and accept that many more will die because of it? What is the wise balance of life, liberty and livelihood? How much do we spend to save lives? What is the decent and honorable thing to do?

Failing anything like leadership from the White House--or even speaking honestly about the stakes--we're left with at least 50 local gambles and calculations. I believe states like Texas and Georgia are making insanely bad choices by flinging open their economies virus be damned. But I'm also pretty sure staying at home and sheltering in place for too many more months is anathema to the American spirit.

There's a baby to be split. I am no Solomon. I hope the person who runs your state is.

THE OCTOBER SURPRISE
The CARES Act bailout of U.S. carriers expires on September 30. That means airlines will be free on October 1 to drop routes they no longer wish to fly and lay off any employees they deem superfluous. Expect a massacre. I would not be shocked if 50 percent of the nation's 750,000 or so airline workers are laid off on the first day. I expect dozens of smaller airports to immediately fall off the national route map. October 1 will be a day that will live in travel infamy.

AIRLINES HAVE NO FUTURE
It took only 45 days for the nation's daily air traffic to fall from an average of about 2.5 million flyers to around 88,000 daily travelers. In the month since we crashed into that terrain on April 14, traffic has approximately doubled. We now seem to be bumping along between 175,000 and 225,000 flyers a day. That means nationwide traffic is currently down about 92 percent compared to last year.

Let's say traffic miraculously doubles again to around 500,000 daily flyers. And then, some miraculous day this year, it even reaches a million travelers a day. That's no small task given the fears of flying with an unchecked virus and within what is, at minimum, a deep recession and maybe even a depression.

But let's say we get to a million flyers a day sometime this year. Now tell me how an industry built on 2.5 million daily travelers survives in a market that's suddenly just 40 percent its former size.

Airlines are already swimming in debt and, depending on the carrier, burning though as much as $100 million a day. None are equipped to compete in a market just 40 percent of what it once was. Some or all may die. We might even have to nationalize or re-regulate the industry just to ensure we have a travel network. Literally anything is possible.

The one thing that isn't possible is an industry that looks anything like it did this time last year.

NO GROUPS, NO GLORY
You've read precious little so far about a couple of other travel realities: What company is going to fly employees to meetings, conferences and conventions in a time of an uncontrolled virus that has no treatment and no vaccine? Companies have a duty of care. They won't be able to do it. And what tour operator is prepared to risk herding tourists from plane to motorcoach to museum to attraction? The financial risk in the time of Coronavirus might be insurmountable.

Let me tell you a little secret about the travel industry: Without group business travel and group leisure travel, there is no travel industry. It can't survive on individual business travel and independent leisure travel.

WHO SAYS THEY WANT US ANYWAY?
I fervently hope that you read Carol Pucci's piece about destinations and their now and future travel restrictions. Glance at this eye-watering flight-restrictions page from Ryanair, Europe's largest carrier. Hawaii still insists on a 14-day quarantine for arrivals. Look what happens when a Hong Kong resident flies home. If you fly to Tokyo or Sydney, you'll spend days at a government-designated hotel. You can't even change planes in Singapore.

Sure, countries and states will lift some restrictions soon. But not all of them. And given how awful the United States has been on testing, U.S. travelers could be pariahs in the months ahead. You may want to travel, but they many not want you--especially if the Coronavirus resembles the 1918 Pandemic, where the second and third waves were worse than the initial onset.

That's enough perspective for one week, I think.