Passenger flights across the US could shut down completely, as the novel coronavirus leads to an even greater drop in travel demand, a new report from The Wall Street Journal says.
A shutdown could be voluntary under the contingency plan airlines are exploring, but it could also be mandated by the government, as COVID-19 wreaks havoc among the nation’s air traffic controllers.
Airlines have canceled thousands of flights as the coronavirus has continued. Congress is debating a rescue package that would include the industry and its workers.
US airlines are preparing plans to essentially shut down, virtually ending all passenger flights within the US, The Wall Street Journal reported.
At the same time, government agencies are considering a shutdown order, as the nation’s air-traffic control system is increasingly impacted by the virus.
There have been no final decisions made by the airline industry or the government, The Journal reported, and a wide range of contingencies are being considered.
Airlines have slashed both international and domestic capacity as travel demand has plummeted due to the spreading virus, and as more countries have closed their borders to try and contain the pandemic. With the federal government advising Americans to stay home and avoid contact as much as possible, and various cities and states implementing shelter-in-place options, the possibility of suspending domestic air connectivity becomes more likely.
This week is expected to see flight cancellations reach new highs as more people stay inside. American Airlines, for instance, cancelled more than 40% of flights on Monday according to FlightAware, while many of the remaining flights operated nearly empty.
Complicating the shutdown debate is the recently revealed vulnerability of the nation’s air traffic control system to the pandemic.
Cases of the virus among employees have forced closures of air-traffic control facilities in Chicago, Las Vegas, New York, and more in recent days, with offices and towers closed for cleaning after employees at the facilities tested positive for COVID-19.
Further closures, or staffing issues presented by sick employees, could quickly lead to catastrophic disruption of the system that controls the flows of air traffic above and around the US. When one site closes, routes are frequently adjusted, or operations are moved to a backup center. However, should the facilities that control the adjusted airspace also close, it would be virtually impossible to continue operating.
The possibility of a full national shutdown has become more muddled in recent days, as President Donald Trump has broken with advisors and called for social distancing guidelines to be lifted.
Simultaneously, even as the federal government debates a bailout package that would include significant relief for the nation’s airlines, the costs of flying nearly-empty passenger planes have continued to add up — even with freight carried in cargo holds.
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