Pandemic Pandemonium In The Air Travel Industry

Helane Becker, Managing Director, Senior Analyst, Cowen and Company, LLC, served as the first ever virtual guest speaker in the 2020 MBA Executive Speaker Series. Becker is an alumna of the School and also serves as a member of the Feliciano School of Business Advisory Board. 

Becker shared her experience working in the airline industry during the Coronavirus pandemic. Becker recalled the moment she and her team received warning of the Trump Administration's decision to enforce travel bans to foreign countries, including Italy and the United Kingdom. With news evolving rapidly during March, Becker recalls, “everybody was in the position of just trying to stay afloat.”

Staying afloat in times of uncertainty resulted in asking employees to take voluntary leaves. “To give you a sense of the numbers, about 750,000 people were employed by the airline industry last year. Having 750,000 people we forecast that 200,000 people would probably lose their jobs by the end of the year. Typically what happens is the industry cuts from the bottom, especially with pilots and flight attendants.”

Becker and her team provided a different suggestion to “win the recovery.” The team suggested instead of laying off at the bottom of the seniority list, airlines should consider encouraging every pilot who’s turning 65 to retire now if they could afford to.

As more information regarding the coronavirus emerged in the months following March, Becker and her team have analyzed the highs and lows of the industry. Now in June, she and her team believe domestic travel will recover more quickly than international travel. This statement is due in part to restrictions which are still in place preventing travelers from other countries from traveling to the United States. 

Shifting towards the future, Becker shared her forecasts for airline travel and the current precautions in place. Recovery from the devastating effects of the coronavirus in the airline industry has been forecasted to take anywhere from 3-5 years. “If we are wrong and recovery is 2-3 years instead of 3-5 years, we want to have as many staff on board as possible to be able to add aircraft back.” 

Regarding the health and safety of flying Becker commented, “one of the things the industry is doing to ensure you feel good about getting on a plane is, because social distancing on an aircraft doesn’t exist, they’re actually thinking of leaving the middle seat empty and in some cases agreeing to fly 60-70% full.” Additionally, “if you wear a mask you will be safe. The level of cleaning the industry is doing right now is unlike anything that they have ever done before.”

The presentation can be viewed on the Feliciano School of Business YouTube channel.