Wichita Airline Expert On The Pandemic: 'This Changes Everything In The Way We Fly'

Apr 17, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic is raining on just about every type of business.

For the airline industry, though, it’s a full-blown monsoon.

The major domestic carriers are losing tens of millions of dollars a day. Airline traffic has fallen to levels last seen 60 years ago as carriers cancel flights and park their planes.

Dean Headley
Credit Wichita State University

Not only is this bad news for the commercial airline industry, it’s also a problem for Wichita. The city’s largest employer, Spirit AeroSystems, makes parts for every Boeing airliner – and for several Airbus models as well. And thousands of other jobs here are tied to the supply chain that supports Spirit.

Dean Headley is a professor emeritus of marketing at Wichita State University and an expert on the airline industry. He’s co-author of the annual Airline Quality Rating, which ranks the performance of the nation’s largest airlines.

Headley watched the industry buckle and then rebound after 9/11.

He talked with Tom Shine and The Range about what’s ahead for the airline industry and for travelers.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

On March 1, the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) screened about 2.3 million people at U.S airports. Last week, it was well below 100,000 for several days. What we're seeing is unprecedented, isn't it?

It's certainly unprecedented. Not even 9/11 took us down this far. The airline industry took about 20% of the seat capacity during 9/11 out of the service. Now, we've got about 90% of the domestic seat capacity not flying, which is dramatically different.

Last Tuesday, April the 7th, was the lowest number of screened passengers since the 1960s in the domestic system.

After 9/11, there was no commercial or travel in the U.S. for less than a week. It took, though, about two years for U.S. passenger traffic to return to pre-9/11 levels. How long is it going to take the airlines this time to return to pre-coronavirus levels?

That's really difficult to say at this point, obviously. A couple things play into that. I think the biggest one is the nature of the fear. … We don't know what that fear looks like. It's our spouse, our neighbor. It's a door knob. It's a seat in an airplane. It can be anywhere. It's faceless. It doesn't have a nature to it that we can see. So the fear that kept people from flying after 9/11 is different than the way the fear strikes us now with this, ‘Well, I can’t see it’ type of a problem that we’re facing.

And that has a good chance to push this recovery back further, doesn't it?

Certainly. This recovery will take certainly a lot longer than the 9/11 recovery. Like you said, it took about two years for that to get back to … pre-9/11 levels. And the airlines were cautious about that, and they're being overly cautious now, for good reason. And I think they will continue to be cautious about that.

This changes everything in the way we fly. The big change we saw after 9/11 was TSA and screening and being overly cautious about who we let on an airplane. How do we do that after the coronavirus? I don't know that we've really figured that one out yet. So that's going to add additional time – months certainly, if not maybe years – before this gets back to normal.

United Airlines is losing about $100 million a day. Delta is about $60 million a day. Congress has set aside about $50 billion in aid for passenger airlines. Is that going to be enough or are we going to see some airlines go under?

I don't think $50 billion is even going to come close to being enough for that. And it's possible that airlines could go under. But we don't have that many to go under, quite frankly.

Since then (9/11), we've had a lot of consolidation, so to speak. I don't know how much more consolidation or bankruptcy or going out of existence of airlines that this country can stand or that the flying public will tolerate. Choice is something that Americans tend to like, and right now we have a lot of choice in air travel for the most part. And if we start losing airlines, I'm not sure how the flying public's really gonna like that.

People flying, of course, is critical to planemakers like Boeing and Airbus, which means it's also critical to the Wichita economy because we … make planes for Boeing and Airbus. Does the slow buildup of airline travel also going to mean a slow buildup for the Wichita economy going forward?

Well, certainly airlines have a full cadre of airplanes that they park. They always have airplanes scheduled for delivery. And it really depends on how quickly the airline feels comfortable in going ahead with those plans … after surviving a financial disaster.

And, on the other side of the ledger, how quickly the production facility can bring its people back together and start producing a plane. It takes several weeks to produce a plane. So when everybody says go again, it's going to be two or three months before we can even hope to see some semblance of, "Well, that’s kind of what it was before."

I think Dr. (Anthony) Fauci was on TV the other day saying that we're just not going to turn the switch back on.

First of all, we don't know exactly which switches to turn on. And secondly, the switch turning on relies on the fact that there's somebody out there that wants to see that light, so to speak, or wants to use that service. And this is gonna make a lot of people gun shy. There's no question about it. We have seriously changed the way our country will function for a long time to come.

Some of that's going to be good, though. I mean, let's face it, people are a lot more caring and giving and understanding and appreciative, and there's a lot of good things there. But at the same token, there's going to be a lot of hesitation about re-engaging in the way that our American "Do what we want to do, when we want to do it" type of attitude has been in the past.

If we can … let's look two or three years out, four years out. What changes might your average traveler – the person who flies maybe two times a year, three times a year – see in the airline industry?

It's hard to say exactly how security will change. I'm not sure they can do the health screening, so to speak. They're not going to be taking your temperature and all that kind of stuff.

There may be some type of a health question that they ask. I could see that being possible, particularly if this virus lingers or comes back over and over again at various countries that maybe aren't quite as quick to shut it down or recognize it or control it as best you can.

I could see that … for the flying public. And they may have to have a note from your doctor … in that process.

But let's face it, we like to move around and anything that limits our movement, that seems a little bit out of reason, is going to take a while for the flying public to warm up to. How long did it take us to get used to the TSA stuff? … "No, you’ve got to take your shoes. You've got to take your belt off. You know, go ahead and disrobe while you're at it. So you might as well cause we're going to check everything."

How long did it take for them (TSA) to begin to soften that or ease that? This is a little different, but it's that type of a thing. It's taken several years with the TSA to ease some of their restrictions, and I expect the TSA will continue to play a role somehow in the screening of the traveling public. So they're going to be front and center in this process for the traveler.

I'm going to guess you're a frequent flyer given your job. You won't have any hesitancy about flying going forward, right?

Right now, yes. In the future, it depends on where I'm going and how that part of the world or the country is faring at this point. I've always taken precautions, even before the coronavirus thing. I wiped down the tray table in front of me. I wipe down the seats with disinfectant wipes. I keep my shoes on. I don't use their headphones … I didn't trust the interior of airplanes given that that airplane could be in four or five different states in one day, and who knows where everybody had come from. I didn't trust that in the first place. So I'm going to be a little bit more careful, shall we say, as I go forward.

Anything else that I haven't asked you that you'd like to mention or make a point about?

Well, just the point of encouragement really, and that is that this will pass, it will change things. Just like 9/11 changed the way we flew and used the air travel system. This will change the air travel system. It's hard to say exactly how.

I think one thing this has taught us is that … literally the world is so interconnected that we have to be aware of what's going on all the way around us. And … as I've said before, every traveler must be prepared to take care of themselves. Whether it's a glitch in a reservation or a missed connection or a health issue, you must be prepared to take care of yourself because while the airlines try their best, they can't do that for you. You must be responsible for your own outcomes as much as possible.

Tom Shine is director of news and public affairs at KMUW. Follow him on Twitter @thomaspshine.