Air Travel and Disease

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UPDATE: April 7, 2020

WOULD YOU like to hear a rundown of all the different ways COVID-19 is turning the commercial aviation business into a hellscape? A list of the various airlines that have suspended operations, maybe, or a synopsis of expected losses and long-term industry repercussions?

Me either. Because it’s changing day to day, and because summarizing all of the awful news is too depressing for me to handle.

Call me prescient. Some morbid gloating, maybe is all I’ve got left. In a post on February 27th, over a month ago, I foresaw a scenario in which 80 percent or more of U.S. domestic flights would be grounded. This crisis would be significantly more disastrous than the events of 2001, I wrote, with one or more — or maybe all — of the major carriers staring at bankruptcy. At the time, the only canceled routes were to China. United Airlines hadn’t yet announced its ten percent reductions. Nobody took me seriously. My colleagues all laughed at me.

The reality is going to be worse. What I see now is every U.S. carrier effectively shut down, save for a small number of flights providing essential services, perhaps with government funding. How long this lasts, and what sort of industry eventually crawls from the ashes, is anyone’s guess right now.

Congress and the carriers put a bailout package together on the order of $60 billion. That raised a lot of resentment among politicians and the public. To be expected, I guess. Nobody likes the airlines, and nobody wants their tax dollars plucked away to save them. It’s also true that over the past six years, the biggest carriers squandered more than $40 billion in company profits on stock buybacks for their executives, leaving their companies with only a few months of operating cash should a worst-case situation like this one unfold. (Please keep in mind that none of the workers or their unions were happy when the buybacks were happening. And we’re the ones left to suffer. Many of those executives are in the Caribbean now on their boats, while the rest of us are here watching the airlines capsize.)

Conditions tied to the rescue money forbid the airlines from cutting employee pay or laying anyone off between now and the end of September. On the surface that sounds like a win-win for the the airlines and their workers, but I’m not so sure. I understand the sentiment, to me this sounds like having our cake and eating it too? That money will be burned through very quickly — by midsummer at the latest. Then what? Another course of action would be for the airlines to shutter their operations totally, lay off their entire workforces for 90 days, and use the Federal money to cover aircraft leases, interest, and health insurance coverage during that period. They get rid of their two biggest expenditures — labor and fuel — at a time when nobody is flying anyway, and are in a better position to weather the downturn that will follow when this is over. That would save one or two billion per airline, give or take. Not terribly much in the scheme of things, but it buys time.

Better or worse, that’s not the agreement they came to. Instead, we will attempt to power through, which is playing a dangerous game. The end result, instead of a three-month sacrifice, could be multiple bankruptcies and liquidations, meaning millions of lost jobs and destroyed careers (mine among them).

Either way, if the pandemic panic continues for any length past the summer, the U.S. commercial aviation industry as we know it is finished.

Two Mondays ago I flew a 767 into New York. Was that the last commercial flight I will ever pilot? It’s not inconceivable. Enough of me was convinced of it that I asked the captain if I could fly the leg and make the landing.

Does that sound absurd? Well, everything that’s happening right now seemed absurd just two weeks ago. It’s all absurd until it’s not. In under a month’s time, the airline industry went from historically high profits and unimagined stability to the verge of complete collapse. How is that even fucking possible?

The huge irony is the modern commercial airline sector had been enjoying its longest-ever stretch of profitability and, no less important, stability. I can’t overemphasize that second point. For decades this was a cyclical business of wild highs and crushing lows. The nadir of this pattern was the airline apocalypse that followed the attacks of 2001. But in the years that followed, the industry regrouped, rebuilt and re-strategized. Among many changes were the three mega-mergers (UA/CO, DL/NW, AA/US) that helped consolidate operations and reduce overcapacity. By the mid 2000s it seemed like they’d finally landed on a business model that would guarantee consistent, long-term success.

Until this.

But I suppose that’s the nature of the business. There will always be inherent, very unpredictable risks that can, on a moment’s notice, send the most profitable airline reeling. “Black swan events,” they call them. There’s no way around that. And those who’ve been in the airline industry for any length of time know it. We feel it, every time we go to work, even in the best of times. Nothing is ever certain.

In my career as a pilot I’ve worked for five airlines. I’ve been through three bankruptcies and a furlough that lasted almost six years. And for pilots, any threat is especially worrying because, should you find yourself laid off or your airline out of business, you cannot simply slide over to another one and take it from there. In the United States, the way airline seniority systems work, there is no sideways transfer of benefits or salary. If you move to a different company, you begin again at the bottom, at probationary pay and benefits, regardless of how much experience you have. This is how it’s always been, and there are no exceptions. You lose everything.

And here’s a question: At what point is the cure worse than the disease? What doesn’t make sense to me is the scale of our reaction — the unfathomable vastness of it. The hysteria, the nonstop media amplification, the willingness to bring society to a grinding halt. It feels like we’re half a step from the end of civilization.

I understand the benefits of “flattening the curve,” and the risks COVID-19 presents to certain people who are particularly susceptible. Millions of people being locked down should have the effect of slowing the disease’s spread and allowing the health system to accommodate those likely to seek treatment — i.e. people who are elderly or have underlying conditions. It’s not about stopping the disease, it’s about reducing how many people are catching it at once. All of that makes sense to me. But are there other, perhaps less ruinous ways of accomplishing this than laying waste to the entire global economy?

Instead of treating this as a public health emergency and freeing up however much money is needed for that, we have turned it into an EVERYTHING emergency. We will spend trillions in relief and bailout money, throw tens of millions of lives into chaos, and kill untold numbers of people indirectly through economic stress and unemployment.

I’m not advocating that we all simply continue on with our lives and leave people to die. However, is there not a strategy through which we can save the largest number of people without simultaneously obliterating the world economy? What if the trickle-down effects of an economic wipeout cause greater and longer-lasting suffering than coronavirus would in the first place? Already in developing countries under lockdown — Philippines, India, Zimbabwe — people who were living on subsistence-level employment are literally starving to death. Here at home, if the pandemic triggers a depression, we could see the loss of income and health insurance for millions of people, increased poverty and homelessness, and on and on. Is an all-out binary approach truly the wise choice?

It may be that the morally correct option is to keep the economy running. Versus what feels like the morally correct thing. We wear masks and sing songs and do our “social distancing” dances. But what if, in the long, run, we’re making life miserable for millions?

Which, for the moment, makes me sound distinctly, well, Trumpian. My predictions thus far have been accurate, but that’s one I never saw coming. I could well be wrong, and our shellshocked President could well be driving us straight into catastrophe. If not, well, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

It’s kind of amazing, meanwhile, and a little distressing, how quickly people have acclimated to a very different way of living. If I see the phrase “new normal” one more time I’ll scream. Because NOTHING is normal. I want no part of this to ever seem normal — except maybe for the decline in carbon emissions and less trafficking of pangolins. But the reality is, when people are afraid, they adjust very quickly, to almost anything. The specter of a pandemic can be like that of “terrorism,” where a populace begins to accept ways of life that are ultimately harmful.

It has barely been a month and I’m seeing articles about “How to Social Distance During Next Winter’s Holiday Season,” and others with headlines like, “We’re Never Going Back to Our Old Ways.” The “thank you for practicing social distancing” placards affixed to the floor in my supermarket don’t look like temporary stickers; they look troublingly permanent. Much the way certain “temporary” measures put in place after 9/11 wound up not being temporary at all, for no reasons that made sense, I’m afraid some of this is staying with us too. There are whole new mindsets, new industries, and dare I repeat it, new normals, springing up around this. It’s not going away. Not completely.

Though maybe I’m being paranoid. A lot of the predictions people made after 9/11 about how we’d change as a society turned out wrong. They said we’d become a less violent, less superficial, more introspective nation. The exact opposite happened.

So much about this is so bottomlessly frustrating. And with all of the amazing technology we have, how is this happening? Here in the richest country on earth, most people can’t even get tested. This is why I always laugh when people propose how, no matter our self-destructive tendencies, “technology” will be there to save us from ourselves. How’s that working out? Look at coronavirus. Look at climate change. Look at the spread of false information. Technology is meaningless if the society that controls it has no idea what it’s doing. It barely needs saying: technology is much more likely to ruin us than to save us.

For years, as the population continues to grow and we continue to upset the natural order, experts have been warning of a coming pandemic. Ironically, this isn’t the one they’ve feared. A virus that kills up to two percent of its victims is frighteningly lethal, but nowhere close to the scenario that many predict is inevitable, with mortality rates of 20, 30, or 50 percent. I can only imagine our reaction to that one. Coronavirus is in many ways just a dress rehearsal.

And when these things happen, the airplane, bless it, is in many ways the focal point. If you’re an aerophile like me, you take a certain perverted pride in that. Such an important thing, this airplane. If you’re a normal person, you probably find it terrifying. As you should. Air travel is, if nothing else, an exquisitely efficient vector for the spread of pathogens. Not because planes themselves are incubators of disease, but because of how quickly they move vast numbers of people around the globe.

Once after arriving in the United States on a flight from Africa, I noticed a lone mosquito in the cockpit. How easy it would be, I thought, for that tiny stowaway to escape into the terminal and bite somebody. Imagine an unsuspecting airport worker or passenger who has never before left the country, and suddenly he’s in the throes of some exotic tropical sickness. Actually, it’s been happening for years. Cases of “airport malaria” have been documented in Europe, resulting in several deaths after faulty or delayed diagnosis. It’s just a matter of time before this happens in America, if it hasn’t already.

In 2014, at the height of the Ebola crisis, I became ill on a plane returning from Ghana. It was mostly a gastric thing, but with a high fever as well. (To this day I’m unsure what the culprit was, but it’s not by accident that in all my trips to that country since, I’ve never gone back to Epo’s, a popular chicken and noodle place in the Osu neighborhood.) I wasn’t especially worried, and wanted nothing more than to grab my commuter flight home. But the Port Authority paramedics who met the plane had other ideas. Ghana was free of Ebola, but to them, “Ghana” sounded a lot like “Guinea,” where indeed the disease was raging. That’s literally all it took. Thus I found myself ordered into an ambulance and left alone for two hours in the parking garage at Jamaica Hospital, while the staff figured out what to do with me. Then another hour in a quarantine chamber while a nurse, costumed for Chernobyl or a voyage to Neptune, yelled at me from across the room.

“Look,” I said. “I don’t have Ebola. But whatever I do have, it’s getting worse the longer you leave me sitting here!”

Where I’m going with that I’m not sure. I suppose my point is twofold. First, to emphasize the dangers of hysteria. I was basically hospitalized against my will because the country I was coming from happened to begin with the letter “G.” But also, yes, to illustrate just how ruthlessly jetliners can, potentially, push contagions from one corner of the globe to the other.

To this point we’ve been lucky. Who knows what maladies the future holds, in a world moving full-speed toward environmental cataclysm. We will see this again, and next time it could be worse.

Author’s photo.

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