U.S. airlines prepare to shut down domestic services amid COVID-19 crisis


Southwest Airlines Boeing 737. Photo by Matt Lino | AeroNewsX.

Major American airlines are drafting plans for a potential voluntary shutdown of virtually all passenger flights across the country, according to U.S. industry and government federal officials. This is as government agencies such as the Center for Disease Control, National Transportation Safety Board, Federal Aviation Administration, and others are also leaving the option on the table to potentially order such a move as the nation’s air-traffic control system continues to be affected by the coronavirus.


There have already been occurrences where airports and ATC center facilities, such as the JFK Airport tower, Chicago-Midway Airport (MDW) and Salt Lake City Center were all closed in light of recording a facility employee testing positive for the highly communicable COVID-19. This led to some major air traffic control issues, and the closing of the Indianapolis center meant that no aircraft operating under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) would be allowed in that area.


It’s interesting that airlines are still considering the option that they may either voluntarily or be demanded by Executive Order to shutter domestic and international operations completely, to help “flatten the curve” of infections as the total numbers of confirmed cases continue to rise dramatically in the United States. Some experts have estimated that the U.S. can base the coronavirus outbreak model on that of China and Korea, and health officials have said that the virus has a 9-week curve from when infections begin to rise dramatically, stabilize, and then fall off. Many states have exercised their own jurisdiction and issued shelter-in-place orders, or have issued strong recommendations for citizens to stay quarantined in their homes, and leave only for gathering food/medicine, or for “essential business” only.


Both the federal government of the United States and State officials as well have deemed the aviation sector, and air travel as “essential business” and therefore airports, ground and air facilities, as well as airlines may continue operating, despite abysmal demand.


No final decisions have been made by the carriers or the White House, these officials said. As airlines struggle to keep aircraft flying with minimal passengers, various options are under consideration, according to officials.


However, amid the quickly spreading pandemic and the shelter-in-place orders covering some 80 million U.S. residents, airline executives, pilot-union leaders and federal transportation officials said they increasingly view a total network shutdown close to inevitable, furthering sharp reductions from already decimated schedules in passenger flights.


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%, with more and more travelers opting to stay home. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reported that passenger flow at its security checkpoints in airports had decreased more than 80% on Sunday, March 22nd, compared with the number of passengers recorded the same day a year earlier.


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