Analysis: Airline industry catches a virus

rat illustration
Credit: iStock/Exxorian

In Chinese Zodiacal terms, the rat symbolizes intelligence, quick thinking and money wisdom. But as the 2020 Lunar New Year, the Year of the Rat, began in January, it was the rodent’s less endearing qualities that were sadly more appropriate as the novel coronavirus pestilence named COVID-19 took hold.

The human brain, and how it perceives danger, is an odd thing. People are afraid to fly, but they will happily drive their car or get into a taxi anywhere in the world without a care in the world, even though statistics strongly demonstrate that flying on a commercial airliner is safer by several orders of magnitude. 

January and February are typically the high season for the annual outbreak of common flu. In the US, it was no different in 2020. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported at the end of January that initial estimates of the global toll of the 2019/2020 flu season included 10,000 dead and 180,000 hospitalized.  

Yet the panic was all about the coronavirus.

For airlines, such outbreaks—and the public response to them—have rapid impacts and bring complicated responsibilities. On the impact side, there is a sudden downturn in demand to go to those places perceived to be potentially dangerous. Wuhan, where COVID-19 began, is around 745 miles south of Beijing and 600 miles west of Shanghai. But in a matter of days, demand for travel to China’s major cities—and then to Hong Kong—plummeted. Airlines everywhere reduced, and many then suspended, flights to China and Hong Kong. Many of the adjustments were made in response to the fall in demand. But there was also concern for the safety of flight crews and uncertainty about the complications that might occur as countries began implementing and extending quarantine rules for people who had recently been in China.


It was that uncertainty and different responses by various governments that fueled the global public panic. People did not just want to avoid travel to China (where, in any case, meetings and events were being canceled); they did not want to fly at all because of the perceived greater risk of catching the new virus while trapped in a tube for several hours in close proximity to strangers. The same people—at least outside of China—continued to eat at restaurants, get on trains, go to their offices, and attend church, concerts and weddings. But newspapers and social media were full of articles advising what to do to avoid getting sick from a plane journey if you really, really had to fly. “Expert” tips included not touching or using the tray table or IFE system; keeping the ceiling air vent closed; opting for a window seat; and wipe, wipe, wiping everything with antibacterial sheets—even though COVID-19 is a virus, not bacterial. If such measures make sense, they should apply to every flu season.

From a global government response point of view, there were lessons learned that could have been applied from the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak. For the most part, they were not.

Andrew Herdman, director general at the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines, was among those calling for a more coordinated effort by governments, as recommended after SARS. He pointed out that by mid-February, 72 countries had introduced differing measures to contain the virus, but less than half of them had informed the World Health Organization (WHO), even though governments had agreed to do so. He also noted that WHO had seen no reason for travel restrictions, including for China.

The many differing measures added to the uncertainty for passengers and flight crews. While some governments opted for outright flight bans to China, others allowed air services to continue on condition passengers agreed to self-quarantine, effectively making travel impossible. Transits through China were also affected, further complicating the go or no-go decisions by airlines.

Another lesson from studies done after SARS was that screening of passengers for virus symptoms is more effective if it is done before they leave airports. Instead, almost all COVID-19 screening has been done as passengers arrive (and after they have completed their flight).

“It appears that we have to relearn that lesson,” Herdman said. 

“Air travel does not cause more virus cases, but rather disperses the cases further,” he said, pointing out that the Spanish flu killed 40 million people around the world in 1918—long before the advent of commercial air travel. 

Ultimately, viruses run their course. Consumer confidence returned quickly after the number of SARS cases went into decline. The question for airlines is how long before that happens with COVID-19? And, in the near term, how will airlines utilize the aircraft—especially widebodies—that were assigned to China routes until the outbreak? In Europe and North America, there is some concern about a sudden glut of capacity in the transatlantic market and a softening of yields.

Maybe that quick-thinking, money-wise rat has some answers.

Karen Walker

Karen Walker is Air Transport World Editor-in-Chief and Aviation Week Network Group Air Transport Editor-in-Chief. She joined ATW in 2011 and oversees the editorial content and direction of ATW, Routes and Aviation Week Group air transport content.