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Future Pilots

Wide Range of Airline Recovery Predictions

By Peter Forman

Pilots who are currently employed in the U.S. aviation industry are some of the most severely affected by the coronavirus pandemic. With potential furloughs right around the corner, the big question is “what happens next?” The answer to that question depends to a large extent upon progress in bringing the COVID19 pandemic under control.

What we do know is that the COVID19 pandemic brought even more severe stress to U.S. airlines than did the 911 attacks of 2001. According to TSA statistics for passengers processed, air travel bottomed out in mid-April, 2020, at a mere 5% of seasonally-adjusted daily numbers. Air travel recovered to 10% of normal around May 20, and in early June the numbers were pushing 15% of normal. At the time of writing this article, TSA statistics are showing numbers at 30% of normal. That’s an encouraging trend, but the numbers are still abysmal. Ultimately, the perceived risk of flying will determine how quickly U.S. airlines bounce back, and that perceived risk will in turn mostly be determined by progress in getting the coronavirus outbreak under control.

Pessimists paint a picture of an outbreak that lasts for years, with additional waves of increased infection coming with reopening of the economy and then again as the traditional flu season cranks up again in winter. These projections assume that a workable vaccine is still at least 12-18 months away or might never be found.

The most pessimistic response by air travelers would be to find workarounds such as widespread change of habits that avoid air travel, a shift from in person meetings to Zoom sessions and other multi-media events. Leisure travel would remain restricted due to concerns with both flying on airplanes and staying in hotels, which are not as safe as hunkering down at home. In such scenarios the airlines would, out of necessity, have to severely curtail the number of flights since, at recent ticket prices, planes must be mostly-full in order to achieve break-even revenue for that particular flight, much less contribute something for the airline’s overall operation. With so much debt to service, most airlines would not be able to remain viable at such greatly-reduced flight schedules.

Fortunately, the optimistic view is not nearly so dire. Even with the U.S. opening for business again, websites such as worldometers.info show that daily new cases are decreasing and deaths have fallen to a rate of less than half of late April numbers. People have changed their behaviors including more frequent hand washing, reduced touching of their faces, and social distancing precautions, particularly by those older individuals most at risk from the disease. Medical personnel now have greater testing and adequate protective gear to work with. Better knowledge of which therapeutics work in which scenarios is leading to better treatment. Convalescent antibody treatments that rely on plasma drawn from recovered COVID19 patients have shown promise. Lab-created antibodies that could be produced in much greater numbers are also making inroads. Drugmaker Eli Lilley began human trials of its antibody treatment on June 1, and if the treatment proves safe and effective, the treatment could go mainstream by this fall. Once an effective treatment is readily available for COVID19, much of the fear of catching the disease disappears. The main advantage of antibody treatments is that they don’t depend upon the time-consuming process of waiting for the body to create its own antibodies (such as is needed with vaccines) and they can therefore provide immediate relief to individuals who have contracted the disease.

The current administration is betting big on vaccines right now. Human trials are already underway and the government is willing to spend billions to ramp up production of promising vaccines even before they’re proven so that an ample supply is ready to go once a candidate is proven safe and effective. Operation Warp Speed, as it is known, first looked at 14 promising vaccines and now has whittled the list down to 5. It is expected that if any of these 5 vaccines proves both safe and effective, large numbers of the vaccine (hundreds of thousands to hundreds of millions of doses) will be ready to go by year end or very early in 2021.

Whether fear of catching COVID19 is dispelled by effective antibody treatments or by effective vaccines, at some point fear of catching the disease greatly diminishes and a rapid recovery of the U.S. airline industry (and the pilot jobs it supports) becomes possible. Optimists believe that once fear of travel is squelched, demand for air travel will march upward dramatically. Conferences and other events that have been cancelled will be rescheduled. People who have been cooped up in their houses and not spending much on dining and other frills will be itching to travel again.

The timetable of COVID19 treatment and prevention options is still murky. For the optimistic scenario to evolve, the primary ingredient will be progress in treatment or vaccines that take the fear out of traveling. This is the primary breakthrough that airline pilots and future pilots need to be aware of, so as to calibrate their personal decisions. Fingers crossed.

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