Into the Future of Flying
Trymaine Lee: The last time I flew on an airplane was March 18th. I was headed back home to New York City from Cleveland Ohio, where I was covering the state's primary election. Coronavirus was just setting in, and the election was postponed. It was a start of a national postponement of everything. That flight was the loneliest flight I'd ever been on. I was one of just three people on the entire plane, and to think, I was well on my way to Delta's platinum status. That too has been postponed. The coronavirus has gutted the travel industry. U.S. airlines have lost more than 90% of their passengers, and are projected to lose tens of billions of dollars in revenue this year. Those are astonishing numbers. But the desire to travel, that's not going anywhere.
A survey by a leading travel industry site found one third of all Americans say they hope to travel within three months after restrictions are lifted. And as we've seen, restrictions are being lifted. States and countries are beginning to reopen, and even now, people are traveling. (MUSIC)
Archival Recording: I just have my mask with a filter in it and then gloves, hand sanitizer, Lysol wipes.
Archival Recording: Disinfectant that I carry with, just pull it outta my pocket after touching anything that, you know, everybody else touches.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee. This is Into America. Today, the future of flying, will it ever be the same? Will America's major airlines survive? And if you do fly, what does that look like during a pandemic? I talked to the go-to guy when it comes to covering space and aviation, NBC correspondent, Tom Costello, who's been on this beat for a very long time. America's airports look like nothing you've never seen.
Tom Costello: Good day from Reagan Airport. You know, the words you hear most often to describe the situation is apocalyptic, bankruptcy, and depression.
Lee: Thank you, Tom. It's so good to have you here.
Costello: Yeah, my pleasure.
Lee: How long have you been covering aviation? And how did you actually get into this beat?
Costello: So I've been at the NBC News Washington Bureau now for 15 years, hard to believe. And I inherited this beat from a legendary correspondent at NBC News by the name of Bob Hager. Bob retired about nine months after I started with NBC News, and then I fell into this beat.
Lee: You know, many of us are used to seeing you at these airports delivering the news. Sometimes it's heartbreaking stuff, tragedy, right? Accidents. Other times, you're breaking down the analysis of the business for us. But now we see you reporting from Reagan National and LaGuardia. And it's desolate, and it's lonely, and it's a little bit eerie seeing you there. How does it actually feel being in those spaces now?
Costello: You know, I was just over at Reagan Airport a couple of days ago. There was nobody in my live shot behind me, save one construction worker who worked the overnight shift and was goin' home. And you could see him in his orange vest walking away.
It's a ghost town, it's eerie, and my concern is that this is really a very strong indicator of what's happening to the economy right now. And it's terrible. You know, the airline industry is the lifeblood of the economy, and as goes the airline industry, so goes the economy. And it is in serious trouble.
Lee: How much of a dip are we actually looking at, in terms of travelers?
Costello: The airlines had been down 95%. In other words, passenger volume is down 95%. At the moment, it's down about 90%, so we've seen a very small increase of people coming back. But in hard numbers, about 215,000 people flying every day now nationwide. Compare that to 2.6 million a year ago. So we are down substantially.
Lee: How are you even able to social distance at an airport or in the airplane? Like, what safeguards are in place for passengers?
Costello: So, I mean, first of all, people are flying because people have to get places, right? I mean, that's the bottom line. I mean, you're not seeing families gettin' on an airplane and going to Disneyworld. Disneyworld is closed anyway. Hotels are shut down, right? No matter where you want to go, once you get there, what are you gonna do?
That's a big problem. But listen, you still have medical professionals flying across the country. You've got government officials who need to get places. You got, God forbid, you got families who need to get to another city, because they just lost a loved one, or somebody's on life support. So yes, people are flying, but it's a fraction of before.
But really to the point of, you know, how do you try to social distance inside an airport or inside a plane? The TSA and the airports are trying to increase social distancing at the checkpoints themselves to keep six feet away. Many airports, not all, many airports are requiring that you wear a mask. Once you get to the boarding zone, if you will, to the actual gate, the airlines, almost all of them are also engaging in social distance when you get on board the plane.
They're trying to keep six feet at least between all passengers when you board. And they're boarding from the back forward, so that you're not constantly trying to squeeze past somebody and rubbing shoulders. What they're saying is, they are trying to keep the middle seat open, but they are not guaranteeing it. They are not promising that. And no, they are not blocking middle seats. Let's be honest. They are their knees financially.
They need every seat filled that they can fill, and so they are filling up these seats. If they can get passengers, they'll do it. And listen, there are many fewer flights today than there were just a few months ago. So if you're flying from New York to L.A., you're not gonna have nearly as many options. There are very few flights, and as a result, those flights that are going are gonna be a lot fuller than they normally might have been, or than they would have been even a few weeks ago when they were literally deserted, you know, you had just five, ten people on board.
Lee: What have airlines done to institute any policy around mask wearing?
Costello: Yeah. Every airline right now is requiring masks. You as a passenger must wear them, and they're requiring them of their crew members as well.
Lee: How much of this is mandatory. What happens if, we're 30,000 feet in the air, and I decide, you know what? I'm taking this mask off, I can't breathe, I'm uncomfortable. Does the flight crew have to be sky cops essentially?
Costello: Yeah, that's a great question. They are mandating the mask when you board. They're asking passengers, when you're on board, please keep the mask on. I was talking to an expert at Vanderbilt University just a couple days ago, who said, "If you are in a plane, and you cough or you sneeze, that discharge can travel two rows ahead of you and behind you."
However, the airlines have also sent out the directive to their airline flight attendants saying, "We don't need to get into an altercation over this." If the airlines are telling their staffs, their flight attendants, "If somebody on board suddenly takes off the mask and refuses to wear it, you can talk to them, you can implore them, please, you're doing this for everybody on board." But ultimately, they don't want to become the traffic cops in the skies. And so they'll probably walk away and avoid a confrontation.
Lee: That doesn't sound like that would give confidence to a lot of folks, if you're saying that people sneeze and it goes several rows in front and behind. And then when you're eating your peanuts, you're drinking your little coffee, then what? You have to take the mask off anyway, right?
Costello: Yeah. Listen, Dr. Schaffner at Vanderbilt University, who's one of the top infectious disease experts in the country said, "The truth is, you should not fly." That's the bottom line. Because it is, in his words, "the exact kind of environment that the coronavirus wants to spread."
Lee: So Tom, you have this perfect environment. You have a lot left to personal responsibility, right? Folks, just make sure you keep your mask on and act accordingly. But just practically speaking, getting in the plane, getting off the plane. And we all know, we have those folks who as soon as you land, they're standing up in the aisle, crowding the space. Is there anything that could be done just moving folks in and out of these airplanes?
Costello: So as I mentioned, the airlines are trying to board from the back forward to avoid everybody squeezing past each other. And on exiting the plane, they're trying to start from the forward to the back. But you're right. Regardless, everybody's gonna stand up. You're gonna be waiting to go, and you're gonna be a lot closer than six feet.
And the airlines are going to implore people, please play along here, because we all understand what the stakes are. But human nature is human nature. You know, I was on a plane one time flying into Denver. And this is pre-pandemic, by the way. While I was on board this flight, a lady behind me had a stroke. And there were people on board, doctors and nurses trying to help her. And the flight attendant came on board and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, we've declared an emergency. We're going into Denver. Paramedics are standing by at the gate. We're gonna ask you all, please remain seated. Do not get up. Paramedics need to board this plane. It's an emergency."
We landed, emergency clearance. Sure enough, people stood up because they had to make their business meeting. And the flight attendant got on and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, sit down or I will have you arrested." They all sat down pretty quickly.
Lee: You know, that's the kinda thing that scares me. Because, you know, we can all be a little selfish, but also the airlines, are they so antsy economically, right, that they want to put the profits over the safety of the people? I'm just concerned all the way around.
Costello: I would say, I don't see that. The airlines recognize the only way that they're going to remain viable, that they're going to be profitable again and flying in full force is if they can do everything possible to ensure your safety as a passenger.
I don't see them putting profits over safety. I think that they all recognize they go hand in hand. But to that end, you know, there is now open talk within the airline industry that we may lose one or more airlines as a result of this pandemic. I mean, they are now burning through $50 to $100 million per day per airline. Delta, $50 million burn rate right now. American hopes to get their burn rate down to $50 million.
So this is an extreme emergency for the airlines. Now when the airlines signed up for this government money, they got $25 billion in government money, they had to promise that they would keep their employees through September 30th. But they've all said, "Listen, come October 1st, you should expect layoffs in a big way." Most estimates have at least 100,000 people will lose their jobs in the airline industry alone come the fall.
Delta Airlines is now saying that it will have 7,000 too many pilots come December. This is not going to suddenly bounce back in the third or fourth quarter of the year. Most experts believe we're talking about a two- to five-year process before airline travel resumes. And so they are gonna have to start cutting jobs. Now think about that. For every job you cut in the airline industry, whether it's a ticket agent, or the person who's helping you check your bags in the skycap, or whether it's the pilot or the flight attendant, how many other jobs are connected, right?
The taxi driver who drove the passengers to the airport, the people who work in the airport in the concession stands. I mean, and then, by the way, all the jobs associated with servicing the airplanes and catering. I mean, the list is endless, so we are talking about a terrific and terrible toll, unemployment slapping the airline industry in the face come fall.
Lee: To hear you say that, that is alarming. And I wonder, is the industry so critical, so important to the American economy, that there will be another round of some aid or bailout money aimed at the airline industry just to make sure they are able to stay afloat?
Costello: I've not heard real discussion that Congress would give them more money. $25 billion is a lot of money, and oh, by the way, they also gave them another $25 billion in low-interest loans. The idea is to get them over the hump to hopefully let them survive.
But keep in mind, there was also an awful lot of animosity towards the airline industry over the last few years, because they were not in many cases stockpiling cash for a bad day. They were buying back their stock, and as a result, many of them did not have the cash reserves to weather this kind of a downturn.
Now nobody would have expected this kind of a downturn, right? This is a once in a 102 or 120-year event. However, that is one reason why there's not a lot of optimism for a lot of, you know, positivity about giving the airlines endless amounts of cash. (MUSIC)
Lee: We'll be right back. Under the best case scenario, do you imagine, once we see our way through this, how close to the pre-pandemic version of airlines and airline travel do you think we'll get to? Will we ever return to what it used to be?
Costello: So all I can tell you is what, you know, the airport CEOs and the airline execs are forecasting and talking about, and the Wall Street analysts. And all of them think it will take at least two years to return to 2019 passenger levels, maybe more like five years. And the pessimists will say up to ten years.
Costello: But keep in mind the scenario here. A typical American family that is not traveling for business, typical American family travels one time a year on a plane. That's it, once a year. So if you consider now that we have 30 to 40 million people unemployed in this country, they are burning through their cash reserves right now just to be able to feed the family and pay the rent and, you know, pay for the kids' orthodontics or whatever the case may be.
They're not gonna have the money when suddenly things start lifting again. They're not gonna have the money to get on a plane and go to Disneyworld. That's just the reality. You're not gonna see a return of the leisure traveler in force, in mass, I think for years.
Now the other part of the equation is, as you know, airlines make their money off of the business traveler, right? The men, the women who fly in some cases every single day. You'll see the same guys and the same women multiple times during a week. Now businesses have completely eliminated business travel, because of the pandemic. And guess what, they're finding out Zoom works pretty well.
Lee: Right. (LAUGH)
Costello: And so, why should I pay for my men and women to fly over the country to make sales calls or to meet one-on-one with people when Zoom works pretty well. If I have to cut one thing, and I'm the CEO or a bean counter at a company, corporate travel is gonna be one of those priorities. So, you know, I think personally, we're talking about four to five years.
Lee: So Tom, you talk about these massive lay-offs, but how does it actually change flying itself? And will the experience of flyers change?
Costello: There are gonna be fewer options is the bottom line, right? All of the options are going to shrink. There will be fewer flights going from city A to city B. And as a result of fewer flights, the flights that are flying, you may have more people than you would expect, once we start seeing a pickup in traffic. If there are fewer flights, the airlines may charge more for the few flights that there are.
Lee: And I wonder why you think the government hasn't stepped in to maybe in the meantime really regulate the industry, really put, you know, a pause on the air travel. Because part of the reason we're in this situation is because how air travel helped kinda facilitate the spread of this virus. Is there any talk do you think of clampin' down in the meantime? Because just one person with coronavirus sneezing and coughing in aisle 13 could create havoc.
Costello: Yes. So there is talk in Congress right now about mandating that airlines must keep the middle seat open. To borrow a phrase from President Trump, I honestly think that's DOA. I don't see that you're gonna see most members of Congress, especially Republican members of Congress have any appetite for telling the airlines that they've gotta take out X number of seats on their planes or block them, when these airlines are fighting for their very survival. I just don't see that.
Lee: Given all that we've talked about, how can a passenger really assess the risk of taking a flight? Because if they do everything right, mask, gloves, hand sanitizer, no middle seat, there is still no way to account for the behavior of other people who are going inside this flying tube. And how can they make their best assessment of whether it makes sense to fly?
Costello: All I can do is tell you the advice that I've been given by the top, you know, virus control people in the country. If you are going to fly, if you have to fly, and people do have to fly, then wear the mask. Keep in mind, N95 masks are reserved for medical professionals, and frontline firefighters and the like.
If somebody in the family has one you can borrow, not a bad idea. I gotta tell you, a lotta people are now suggesting that you wear goggles, like the racquetball goggles to protect your eyes, because you're not just vulnerable from breathing something in through your nose and your mouth, but also if a drop lands in your eye. Wear gloves, use Purell, if you can bring your own Clorox wipes, and be very mindful of everything you're touching. And then we all have a tendency to put hand to face when we're thinking, like you are right now, like I have been (LAUGH) through this whole interview.
And we need to stop that, especially if we've been in an environment where we could have picked something up. That's hard to do when you've been alive for decades, and you're used to doing this, right? But that's something we all need to consider.
Lee: Tom, how comfortable do you feel flying? And would you, you know, load your family on an airplane right now?
Costello: So my wife is European, and we go to Europe every summer to see her family. And right now, we're not going. And that's really bothersome to all of us, because we want to see family. And that's important. So no, I'm not comfortable traveling internationally right now. Domestically, I have to fly to Florida in a couple of weeks to cover a Space X rocket launch. And, you know, I don't think it's likely that I'll be one of only ten people on board. I think that we're gonna be sitting shoulder to shoulder.
And we are talking, how am I gonna do that safely? And I think it's gonna be all of the above. It's going to be the mask, it's going to be the goggles perhaps. I'll look very silly, but you can make fun of me, that's fine. (LAUGH) It'll be the Purell and the Clorox wipes and all of that, and just trying to be very mindful.
Lee: So Tom, you're on this flight, and the passenger next to you, they decide to take this mask off, and they let out a cough, a sneeze. How do you respond? What do you do in that situation?
Costello: I think I'd give 'em a real dirty look to begin with, and I'd say, "Buddy, come on, please, can you keep the mask on?" You know, but you don't want to get into a fist fight over this. And, you know, listen, the chances are he or she is not contagious. He or she does not have the virus, right? But it certainly would be unnerving if that happened.
Part of the problem here, as you know is, we still have to go on with our lives. And the economy needs to move, and we need to pick up the pace, if we can. So there is no end all, be all that keeps you 100% safe, unless you stay home. And really that probably is the best scenario, in terms of flying. If you don't have to, just simply don't.
Lee: Tom, it will actually warm my heart to see you full Haz Mat suit, goggles, (LAUGH) the gloves for your next live hit.
Costello: Yeah, my wife wants me to wear a painter's suit, you know, those white painter suits, and then I'm gonna have the goggles and the mask, and you know, oh my goodness, gracious. (LAUGH)
Lee: These are strange, strange times. Tom, I want to thank you. You're such a trusted voice in this space, so thank you for taking the time to talk with us. We really appreciate it.
Costello: Okay Buddy. Good to see you. Take care. (MUSIC)
Lee: Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Clair Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back on Thursday.