Thoughts From Your Editor…
The COVID-19 virus’ effects upon aviation look rather familiar to me. In fact, this is the fourth time that I’ve experienced a massive downturn and slowdown in the aviation industry during my lifetime. I’m calling it a “forced reset” of the norm. It’s anybody’s guess what the air transportation system will look like in a year or more, but here is what I’ve seen in three previous disruptions, and how some of the effects took time to subside and allow for some “normalcy” again.
Additionally, there’s some good news in the aviation world that has already uplifted spirits here at home during this fourth iteration. Since our digital reporting and storytelling isn’t “business as usual”, come see what we’ll be doing for you in our three digital aviation magazines ( Photorecon.net, ClassicWarbirds.net, CivilAviationWorld.com), as long as these “challenging times” are effecting our passion for aviation.
As an almost thirty-year veteran of the American FAA’s air traffic control system and six more years’ worth of experience in other aviation operations – related positions, I learned the National Airspace System (NAS) was flexible up to a certain level, but to open the flood gates and let the NAS rapidly return to full operations took some planning, and this will undoubtedly reoccur as our system recovers.
I entered the air traffic control field in 1979 as a developmental (trainee). I was in a “leave without pay” status during the PATCO strike in 1981, which meant that I had completed some basic training, but had yet achieved any certifications. Of course, when offered a full-time job at Boston ARTCC two days after the strike, I accepted it, as that was what my four years of college (including two years as a part time FAA employee) had prepared me for. My first experience of the shutting down of the ATC system occurred immediately after the strike began; general aviation was pretty much grounded, as was most military flight training in the northeastern U.S. Airlines had slots to different airports, and air traffic was slowed to a crawl until people began certifying on ATC positions and increased staffing allowed for more traffic to be released. It took a few years to build back up to pre-strike activity levels. This first “reset” of the NAS was caused by the labor action.
The second dramatic slowdown began on September 11, 2001 after the four hijacked jetliners showed a weak spot in aviation security… and until various security measures were beefed up. The NAS was shut down to all except some military and a few special civilian government aircraft. When my shift started on the 11th, just five hours after the first Trade Center tower was hit, I looked at the first radar display in my field of view. I was amazed that the scope was almost empty. What was normally the busiest traffic hours of a day showed only a handful of aircraft in the entire Boston Center’s airspace, not the usual hundreds. I always thought that the only way that we would clear the skies overhead America would be as a reaction to World War III beginning. The three days after the attacks saw the total grounding of all civil air traffic; it took many months more to get back to “normal” traffic levels of activity. And passenger acceptance of new security processes took even longer. This second “reset” of the NAS was due to an aviation security issue.
The third dramatic downturn was a bit slower than the first two events, but the rise of fuel prices and the 2008 financial crisis in America (and across the globe) led to a dramatic decrease in flying for airlines and general aviation. Many older jetliners were grounded or even retired, and indeed some airlines merged with others, such as the Delta and Northwest Airlines merger in 2008 and Southwest’s 2008 merger with ATA and subsequent 2011 venture with Airtran. Air traffic numbers plunged until economies improved. Large mergers did away with duplicate or competing flights too, lowering flight counts. This third “reset” of the NAS was due to the financial climate in the early 21st century.
And here we are today, with a fourth dramatic downturn due to a world-wide pandemic. Aviation offers a fast and effective solution to travel, but the designs of airports and aircraft have put hundreds of thousands of people together in close quarters every day. This is especially true of large “hub” airports. As soon as the COVID-19 virus was shown to be passed by person-to-person contact, airlines and airports began increased passenger screenings. Passengers cancelled their reservations en masse. Airlines likewise cancelled flights, even when some passengers needed to fly. Airline ridership is down by 95 to 98 percent by some estimates. There are even empty aircraft being flown on a variety of routes for a number of good reasons. Again, the NAS has seen an enormous drop in flight activity. This fourth “reset” was caused by a worldwide health issue.
In the first three instances, over time the airline industry and aviation as a whole bounced back from the discussed crises. As for this forth reset, I feel that as long as a method to curtail the passing of the virus (or a similar impediment) can be enacted domestically, flight activity will rebound again. It just might take more time than many of us want to see, but “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and methods to keep humans safe from infections might take a while to perfect. Things will take longer for international travel to resume though, which will require the worldwide aviation community to agree upon common measures for flight safety between all countries.
Will there be a further consolidation of airline companies, as financial situations worsen? Will airline ridership rise to levels found just four months ago, or will less people take to the skies? Has on-line shopping and instant business meetings via computer finally removed the need to be somewhere in person, and reduced the number of needed seats between cities (like the demise of the Boston-New York-Washington DC Air Shuttles, when the use of email became widespread and documents weren’t hand carried anymore)? We may see any or all of these questions answered with reduced air travel.
Now for some good news. Even though aviation as a whole has been hammered by the downturn of activity, there have been rays of light shining out of the darkness of the pandemic. Aviation is woven into the fabric of our well being, here are a few ways that people and technology have given hope to us all.
Airmen assigned to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., return home after a two week deployment supporting the fight against COVID-19, April 3, 2020. The Airmen were tasked with providing extra help in deployed locations following increased mission requirements due to the pandemic. The aircrew also picked up more than 970,000 swab kits from Aviano, Italy and flew them down to Memphis, Tennessee where they will be distributed to various sites to be tested for Coronavirus. (U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Ariel Owings)
The Air Force Times recently ran an article relating the experiences of an Air Force C-17 crew and their aircraft which was operating in the Middle East for a short time. After their assignments were completed, they were given one more important mission to fulfill before going home to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst New Jersey. On April 2nd, they arrived at Aviano AFB in Italy (a country plagued with COVID-19 illnesses and deaths) for an hour-long stop to pick up 970,000 COVID-19 test swabs destined for the U.S. From there, they flew directly to Portsmouth, New Hampshire and then to Memphis, Tennessee and the huge FedEx air cargo hub at the International Airport. This wasn’t a one-off mission either, it was the eighth time in a two-week period that a military air transport carried supplies from a foreign airport to the U.S… Air Force crews on the ground and in the air support these critical missions.
Eighteen pallets filled with more than 970,000 swab kits from Aviano Air Base, Italy are flown to to Memphis, Tennessee for distribution to various locations to be tested for the Coronavirus April 4, 2020. (U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Ariel Owings)
The USAF Thunderbirds flew an almost half-hour mission over the city of Las Vegas on Saturday afternoon, April 11th. The route of their flight zig zagged over sixteen hospitals where the battle against COVID-19 was going on, and their flight was a salute to the responders who are on the front lines (nurses, doctors, EMTs, fire and police personnel, etc.). Via social media comments, their flight over the team’s home town really did boost the morale of many of the overworked medical staffers there. The team’s next “performance” is a planned tour overhead some Colorado facilities, near the team’s Air Force Academy flyover for their Graduation.
Other long-ranged flights are making the news assisting with the battle against the COVID-19 virus… A corporate jet flew from China to White Plains, New York via Anchorage, Alaska recently, full of personal protective equipment. A FedEx MD-11 carrying 91,000 pounds of personal protective gear made a one stop flight from China to Manchester, New Hampshire last Sunday too, again, stopping in Anchorage Alaska. The cargo was unloaded by Air National Guard troops and will be distributed state-wide to facilities in need. Days later, the first Boeing Business Jet (BBJ) outfitted to carry freight, made another cargo flight into Manchester, NH… with New Hampshire businessman Dean Kamen, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun, Governor Chris Sununu and State Representatives Jeanne Shaheen and Chris Pappas on hand. This was the first use of such a large “corporate” jet (really an enhanced Boeing B-737-700 model, owned and operated by Boeing) for carrying cargo, it brought 500,000 facemasks for distribution within the state. Businessman Dean Kamen was instrumental in making both of these flights occur.
Multiple airlines are modifying large airliners’ interiors to be able to carry light cargo instead of sitting idle on the ground. Just an empty belly on an empty flight can be filled with medical supplies, becoming an ad-hoc freighter, as American Airlines recently did with a couple of their Boeing 777-300ERs.
Other idled passenger airliners are still finding work… like up to ten flights using Lufthansa A-380 and B-747 jets that will carry stranded vacationers and business people back from New Zealand to Germany, due to cancelled flights that stranded thousands of people. The German Government chartered the Lufthansa jets, and America has sent USAF transports to the Caribbean to do the same at some island countries with no current air services after so many flights have been cancelled.
Australia has seen high profile repatriation flights too, with Hi-Fly operating an Airbus A-340 from Uruguay to Melbourne; the cruise ship Greg Mortimer was stranded in South America waters and over half of the 217 passengers and crew aboard the repatriation flight were COVID-19 positive. Chartered by the Aurora Expeditions cruise line, it just may be the longest A-340-300 flight ever recorded; according to the airline: “9H-SUN makes history flying 16h16m from Montevideo to Melbourne, a route of 6700 nm repatriating Australians. The flight took off on the 11th April at 4:44 UTC and landed in Melbourne at 21:00 UTC”.
As many Americans are adhering to “shelter in place” and honoring the banning of “non-essential travel”, shopping at home – on line – has increased some segments of the domestic air freight business. As China begins to open factories and restarts production of essentials like masks, breathing ventilators and other medical supplies again, international air freight will rebound from the lack of “regular” commercial cargo caused by shut-down production lines too. Even the world’s largest aircraft, the Antonov 225, has returned from a two-year refurbishment and is on line between China and Europe, carrying medical supplies.
What does this all mean for you, the aviation enthusiast reading this story? First of all, even though airports are quiet, even deserted, civil and commercial aviation is still doing what it does best – delivering freight and passengers (albeit, many less than normal though), rapidly and timely. Military aviation specialists, whether in the air or on the ground, continue to help bring supplies and people to where they are needed too.
Since there has been an almost complete cancellation of the first half of the North American air show season due to social distancing requests, stories about current events that we ‘d normally share will be few and far between. Current airliner spotting features will also be slower in the offing so we have an alternative plan for some variety in our three digital aviation magazines… Photorecon.net, ClassicWarbirds.net and CivilAviationWorld.com.
Once per month, we’ll offer a feature full of random photos pertinent to that title. We’ll be splashing some great aircraft photos around the internet every month, so please check in often and enjoy! Don’t forget, that all three of our titles are updated weekly. We want you to remember that this “reset” will end, and hope that “back to normal” isn’t too far behind.
During my aviation careers, I had always been deemed as “essential”, meaning that I was expected to work regardless of the situation… labor issues, security issues, financial issues, snowstorms, two New England hurricanes, and even threat of furlough due to Congressional budgetary squabbles. Suddenly, I’m not essential, and find myself remaining at home until this pandemic blows over. That’s a welcome change this time around. I hope that the current “thinkers and the doers” make this dramatic downturn in aviation activity short lived, and the system rebounds as fast as safety allows it to, for the good of the world.
All of us here wish for the best of health and safety for all those who continue to work in essential aviation jobs, now and after this forced reset ends.
18 April 2020
“The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.”
All photos are the editor’s except where noted.