New York Congresswoman Grace Meng posted a selfie from her American Airlines flight from New York to Washington, D.C., on Twitter Friday morning as she headed out for the vote on the coronavirus stimulus bill.
One of the first comments wasn't about the $2 trillion package, but about air travel during the pandemic.
"Can you find out why airlines are still flying similar schedules to pre-lockdown?'' a follower asked Meng. "I get that essential travel is required for some, by why not severely limit the flights?''
It's a question being asked across the country given the deepening coronavirus crisis, with the United States last week surpassing China as the country with the most diagnosed cases and New York as the new epicenter. Government officials are imploring people to stay home. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a request Saturday night asking residents of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to curtail nonessential travel in order to help limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Yet airports remain open, if eerily empty. More than 550 flights took off from LaGuardia, John F. Kennedy and Newark airports on Sunday alone, according to flight tracker FlightAware.
More than passengers are at risk. Workers on the travel frontlines, including Transportation Security Administration screeners, air traffic controllers and flight crews are testing positive, with a 65-year-old American Airlines flight attendant dying last week after being diagnosed.
Airlines, industry officials and even health experts say flights are an essential service, for people and cargo, and need to continue during the crisis.
The federal government underscored its position with a key provision in the $2 trillion coronavirus aid package approved last week: airlines that accept a share of the $50 billion set aside for the industry must maintain a minimum level of service through at least September.
Some people 'have to fly'
Infectious disease expert Greg Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic Vaccine Research Group, understands the need for essential travel, even during a pandemic. A neighbor had to fly to Massachusetts last week for experimental chemotherapy treatment, and a relative who is a nurse is due to fly to New York this week to help out.
"People have to go to the grocery store ... and there's some that have to fly,'' he said. "We're not shutting down Walmart or grocery stores or things like that, but we are putting what I call contextually appropriate layers of protection.''
Airlines have put in place stringent safeguards for those still flying, including supercharged cleaning, reduced in-flight service and the spacing out of passengers on flights.
Poland said he would have a problem with flights continuing if they were filled with vacationers, as is the norm this time of year. Instead, they are empty, with airlines struggling to fill even 15% of their seats. Colleagues who have flown recently report just nine to 20 people on their flights, giving them plenty of room to spread out, he said.
"I don’t like the idea of people saying, 'I think I’m going to take a holiday because flights are cheap now,'' he said. "That's actually counterproductive.''
Industry officials: Airlines and airports are essential services
The CEOs of American Airlines and Southwest Airlines, which both service metropolitan New York and destinations around the country, said in videos to employees last week about the coronavirus stimulus bill that the government considers airlines to be essential services and wants them to keep flying during the crisis.
Southwest CEO Gary Kelly told employees in a Q&A video that the airline would save money if it stopped flying, but that the airline does not plan to do that.
"We are essential to keeping the country open and keeping the country running, and people, even in this scenario where travel is discouraged in many ways, people have to go,'' he said. "So, no, we don't want to shut down.''
He said it's not as simple as parking the airline's fleet of 750 planes.
"You know that actually would be quite complicated,'' he told employees in the video. "I'd rather keep the blood flowing through the arteries, so to speak, and I'd like to continue to serve our customers and certainly what the federal government expects of us.''
Airline union officials are on board with essential flights continuing – at least for now.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents flight attendants at United and other carriers, thanked the DOT for only requiring airlines who receive aid to retain a fraction of flight levels to minimize the spread of the virus.
“We applaud the Department of Transportation for taking swift action to define continued essential service, which will help curb exposure and spread of the virus,'' she said in a statement Tuesday. "We encourage the administration to take additional steps to cut redundant service that puts airline workers at unnecessary risk.''
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports, reported a large decline in passengers and cargo in March due to COVID-19. But the board chairman, Kevin O’Toole, said Thursday that the agency is committed to remaining open for people to travel and for the shipment of cargo, such as fuel, food and medical supplies.
“The port authority is open and doing business. This region, this country relies upon that,” O’Toole said at a board meeting. “Our commitment to the public is that we will stay open, and we will keep a safe environment for all to traverse.”
Hassan Shahidi, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, said some passenger airlines are flying cargo-only flights on key routes to transport mail and medical supplies. And some passengers still need to travel.
"While demand is significantly down, there are still people that need to get from one place to another for essential reasons and, in many cases, airlines offer the most efficient and safest means of travel," Shahidi said. "People are also trying to get home before strict lockdowns are put in place for long periods.”
States limit traffic from New York, growing list of other cities
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he's talked to President Donald Trump about domestic flight restrictions but isn't waiting for the federal government to act. Last week he issued an executive order requiring airline passengers traveling from New York, New Jersey or Connecticut to quarantine themselves for 14 days after arrival.
“Today, there are over 190 direct flights from the New York City area to the state of Florida. I would reckon, given the outbreak there, that every single flight has somebody on it who is positive for COVID-19,'' DeSantis said at a news conference March 23. "As we‘re working to stop it in the state of Florida, you’re consistently having people come in from one of the top hot spots in the entire world."
On Thursday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced similar restrictions for airline passengers arriving from New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, plus New Orleans which has also seen a surge in cases. He added several cities and states to the list on Monday, including California, Washington, Louisiana, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit and Miami. Arriving passengers have to stay at home or in their hotel for 14 days or the length of their visit, whichever is shortest, with no visitors allowed except a physician or health care provider.
"The New York Tri-State Area and the city of New Orleans have become major centers of this pandemic, and it is vital that we take necessary precautions to prevent additional exposure that could originate from people traveling from these areas to Texas,'' Abbott said in a statement.
To avoid conditions becoming more dire, Andrew Coggins, a clinical professor of management at Pace University, suggested measures such as taking the temperature of passengers before they board planes, to avoid halting flights.No U.S. airlines have announced such measures before takeoff.
“It’ll wreak havoc on the plane turn-around times, but it’ll signal to the passengers that the airlines take their health seriously,” Coggins said. “If you know or have indications that you may be sick, you should not fly!”
Domestic flight ban floated by Trump, then dismissed
Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have previously said domestic travel restrictions were an option to stop the spread of coronavirus, especially in "hot spots'' and areas where cases are out of control.
But they haven't announced any flight restrictions in New York or other states nor publicly broached the subject recently, beyond reminding people they should avoid nonessential travel.
On Monday, just days after signing the coronavirus relief package that includes the airline minimum service provisions, Trump was asked on Fox & Friends why millions of people are still flying from hot spots, why airports are still open and whether he planned to close airports.
“We are going to be – hopefully before we close things – we’re going to start to open things," Trump said. "Airports, when you close them and reopen them, it’s a tremendous deal. It’s a tremendous deal. In addition, you need them for emergencies, you have emergency flights."
The Federal Aviation Administration would be the agency to order any shutdown or restrictions as happened a year ago when the Boeing 737 Max was grounded following two fatal crashes in less than five months. Asked about the potential for grounding flights nationwide, the agency responded with a statement: “The FAA does not comment on rumors.”
Veteran airline analyst Philip Baggaley, managing director of S&P Global Ratings, said airlines are effectively doing their own shutdown by slashing flights to skeleton levels, flight cuts that grow as states like Texas and Florida try to cut off air travel from certain places with strict quarantine measures for arrivals. In the wake of the CDC advisory covering New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, for example, Spirit Airlines this week said it is suspending service at LaGuardia, Newark, Hartford, Connecticut, and two smaller New York airports through at least May 4.
Airlines are doing their own shutdown
There's a difference between retaining "some flights" during the crisis and operating as usual. U.S. airlines have been slashing flights since the coronavirus crisis began in late January, and the flight reductions have deepened as the crisis drags on and spreads to more places. Even with the government relief, airline executives are warning that additional flight cuts will be necessary given a plunge in travel demand.
International service is practically gone from New York and airports across the country, the victim of a series of government travel bans in the U.S. and other countries. An American Airlines flight from New York JFK to Cancun, Mexico, last week had six passengers on a 172-seat plane.
Reductions in U.S. flights started slow, but many major airlines are now operating or plan to operate 50% or fewer flights as travel demand has all but dried up from business travel and event cancellations. CDC guidelines urge travelers to avoid discretionary travel. States and cities have ordered people to stay-at-home or shelter-in-place, which raised travel anxiety.
On Tuesday, Southwest Airlines said it will operate just 2,000 daily flights in May, compared with more than 4,000 a year ago. The airline has parked or plans to park 50 planes.
Across the three New York airports, the number of flights is down sharply. On Thursday, the number of daily flights into and out of JFK was 515, vs. 1,212 a year ago, according to flight tracker RadarBox. LaGuardia saw 380, down from 1,268, and Newark, 495 vs. 1,145.
Passenger volume at the three airports was down 85% this week compared with March 2019, according was to Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton.
Airports across the country are seeing a fraction of the traffic they'd normally see in March, one of the busiest months of the year for air travel due to spring vacations. U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., said he flew to Washington on Thursday with only five passengers on the only Southwest flight from Milwaukee when there are usually two daily flights that are nearly full.
“We must act to calm the panic and move back to normalcy,” Grothman said before voting Friday on the $2 trillion spending bill.
The most telling statistic: the TSA said it screened just 203,858 passengers and airline crew members on Thursday, down from 2.48 million on the same weekday a year ago. That's a decline of nearly 92%. The daily numbers fell below 200,000 over the weekend and dipped below 155,000 on Monday.
Baggaley and others said pressure to shut down U.S. air traffic might grow if the coronavirus crisis dramatically worsens across the United States or a wave of critical industry employees test positive and are unable to work.
"If the virus spreads very widely throughout more of the country, there could be a call to ground the airlines,'' he said.
New York State Sen. Mike Gianaris, whose Queens district includes LaGuardia and JFK, said he is focused on more pressing coronavirus issues in his district such as a housing crisis when residents aren't able to pay April rent this week rather than why the airports are still open.
"I don't think those planes are very full from what I'm gathering,'' he said.