Virtually all domestic passenger flights in the US could be halted due to COVID-19, as major US airlines have been drafting plans for a voluntary shutdown - while government agencies have been considering an order to do so anyway, according to the Wall Street Journal.
According to officials, no final decisions have been made - yet airline execs, pilot-union leaders and federal transportation officials are increasingly viewing a halt to flights as inevitable given that passenger flight schedules have already been decimated.
U.S. airlines have already eliminated the vast majority of international flying and have announced plans to cut back domestic flying by as much as 40%. Travelers are staying home at even greater rates. The Transportation Security Administration reported that passenger flow at its checkpoints was down more than 80% Sunday from the same day a year earlier. -WSJ
Thanks to virtually empty flights with passengers numbering into the single digits, thousands of flights were canceled on Monday. Planes that did take off were emptier than ever before - such as one flight between New York's LaGuardia and Washington DC which had just three passengers.
Over 40% of flights have been cancelled by American Airlines and United according to Flightaware.com, while some airline officials have predicted that planes will be even emptier later in the week.
Airlines are preparing for the possibility that contagion-driven staffing emergencies at air-traffic control facilities could force the issue, making it impossible to continue operating in parts of the country.
Airport towers at Chicago’s Midway International Airport and McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas remain closed after nearly a week of cleaning.
President Trump and his advisers have been reluctant to mandate a cessation of commercial flights nationwide, some of these officials said, partly because passenger jets also carry a large portion of U.S. mail and essential cargo shipments. Over the weekend, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House’s virus task force, told CNN, “There’s no plan today, or tomorrow to seriously consider” mandating an end to domestic passenger air travel. -WSJ
President Trump on Monday suggested in several tweets, as well as during his administration's coronavirus briefing, that he was leaning toward lifting restrictions on "social distancing" and business shutdowns in an effort to save the economy - which would undoubtedly lessen the chance of a regulatory shutdown of commercial travel.
According to the Journal, airlines are more inclined to follow government orders rather than voluntarily halt flights, as it provides leverage for their ongoing lobbying for federal aid.
"They would definitely prefer the government did it," said one source.
Also, a voluntary shutdown could violate existing labor contracts that require minimum numbers of flights, according to government industry officials.
COVID-19 within the ranks?
Another concern that may force a shutdown is that coronavirus may infect critical personnel in the airline industry - such as agency controllers and technicians who maintain equipment, which could "unravel the nation's air-traffic control system," according to the report - which notes that nearly a dozen traffic-control facilities across the country have been temporarily closed for disinfection, while many employees are on a work-from-home self-quarantine. Others are being investigated for potential contact with infected workers.
So far, longstanding FAA contingency plans have managed to deal with the closures by imposing temporary flight restrictions, rerouting planes and shifting responsibilities among backup facilities and employees. Inside the agency, though, concern is growing that new employee infections, especially at key locations, could upend existing contingency options. In some cases, replacing controllers removed from their radar screens would be extremely difficult because it typically takes months of training to get them up to speed to do specific jobs. -WSJ
An agreement has been reached between the FAA and an air traffic controllers union which will set rules for disinfecting workspaces and identifying potentially infected personnel. The new cleaning protocols are designed to "provide maximum protection for all affected employees and address standards for tracing the source of infection."
What's more, overall staffing levels will be reduced to protect employees, which could result in some lower-priority facilities closing for some length of time.
According to the Journal, another option would be to keep cargo shipments flowing using the Civil Reserve Air Fleet - which are commercial jets designated to help the Pentagon with logistics during national emergencies. If activated, those planes would carry anything from military medical staff, medical equipment, or general cargo. It includes some 400 planes from around two dozen carriers.