Earlier this month, Airlines for America President and CEO Nick Calio joined Tim Keating, Executive Vice President at Boeing, for a virtual fireside chat as a part of the International Aviation Club’s Listen and Learn series. During the conversation, Calio discussed the U.S. airline industry’s COVID-19 recovery efforts, the return of international travel and the impact of a digital health vaccination credentials among other topics.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. airlines were experiencing a “Golden Age” of air travel due in large part to affordability and accessibility, Calio explained. Air travel connected millions of people from all walks of life: U.S. airlines were flying 2.5 million passengers and more than 58,000 tons of cargo each day, and in 2019 alone, 927 million people were carried by U.S. airlines – an all-time high.
Yet, the aviation industry was quickly devastated with the onset of the pandemic. Passenger traffic fell by 96 percent in the early months of the pandemic – a level not seen since the 1950s. “The bottom fell out at breathtaking speed,” resulting in years of profitability and “fortress balance sheets” being wiped out in a matter of weeks, Calio said.
While U.S. airlines undertook aggressive cost-cutting and self-help measures throughout the pandemic, Congress as well as the previous and current Administrations have been “incredible” in supporting the aviation industry throughout this crisis. “The Payroll Support Program was a lifeline to the industry” Calio stated. “The government has done an incredible amount to allow us to keep our employees on. […] The most recent [bill] allows us to keep people on the payroll. Tens of thousands of employees would have lost jobs on April 1. The whole [aviation] ecosystem drives the economy and [U.S. airlines] can help drive the economy. The government has put us in the position to help do that,” Calio said of the passage of the American Rescue Plan.
U.S. airlines now face a multi-year recovery and continue to rely on science to make informed decisions that prioritize the health and well-being of customers and employees at every step during the travel journey. Among the steps U.S. airlines have taken include partnerships with universities or medical clinics to evaluate practices and implement risk mitigation measures, such as strict face mask enforcement and requiring health acknowledgement forms prior to boarding.
Additionally, U.S. airlines created a consortium with industry stakeholders and approached the Harvard National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI) to conduct an independent evaluation of measures in place on aircraft and airports based in science and research. This critical examination of the “gate to gate” and “curb to curb” travel experience affirmed that multiple layers of protection, along with enhanced cleaning and disinfection measures, result in an environment onboard that is as safe if not safer than routine activities, such as grocery shopping or eating in a restaurant, with very low risk of transmission. The independent findings based in science from Harvard researchers resulted in a changed media narrative and showcased a collaborative “model of what can be done when people join together,” Calio emphasized.
There are signs of optimism as the aviation industry looks toward recovery. The Transportation Security Administration reported 1.5 million people screened on March 21 – the highest number screened in a single day since March 2020. But despite the uptick, passenger throughput remained down 30 percent compared to the same day in 2019 when 2.2 million passengers were screened. Calio anticipated that business travel will be slower to return to pre-pandemic levels but will eventually recover due to the value of meeting in-person rather than through video conferencing. “Being face-to-face creates a certain amount of trust and know-how…it’s a more productive way of doing business,” he said.
As air travel looks to improve, numerous factors will contribute to the safe reopening of other markets, including mass global vaccinations and the implementation of uniform health credentials. “Vaccination will be the lynchpin at this point” to making a seamless travel experience and propelling the economy’s recovery, Calio stated. “We need to have a uniform standard so the people who have to read the credential can read it, whether TSA or a gate agent.” The country should have a leading role in developing solutions, Calio advocated, noting that uniform guidance that incorporates internationally understood cues will be key in ushering the return to travel and recovery of the economy.
Today U.S. airlines remain committed a sustainable recovery as they pilot a path forward from the pandemic. This starts with building on the aviation industry’s “incredible” environmental record – U.S. airlines contribute only 2 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. With the goal to reduce emissions by 50 percent by 2050, U.S. airlines “want to be part of the solution” and achieve environmental goals through partnerships between government and industry.
Now, after a year of challenges and uncertainty, U.S. airlines continue to look forward with cautious optimism balanced with realistic expectations. “We are a very resilient industry and the best at what we produce for the economy. We need to work together to bring the industry back to where it was,” Calio concluded.
For more information about how A4A carriers are working to protect the traveling public and our employees, visit www.FlyHealthyFlySmart.com. And to learn more about U.S. airlines’ commitment to the environment, visit AirlinesFlyGreen.com.