For example, airlines had to take drastic steps as travel came mostly to a halt. In many cases, that meant lots of canceled flights. For the ones that weren't, many were barely half full--partially because of decreased demand, and partially as a safety measure to allow for at least some form of social distancing on a narrow metal tube filled with potential virus spreaders.
All of that meant that airlines lost billions of dollars in 2020, their worst year since the aftermath of 9/11. It's hard to make money with half-empty flights.
Fortunately, things have started to turn around. As a larger portion of the population is vaccinated, travel is likely to pick back up. Just this week, President Biden suggested that he thinks the country could look a lot more like normal by the Fourth of July holiday.
Now, as part of the recently passed Covid-19 relief bill, $14 billion was allocated to help airlines as long as they promised not to lay off any employees through September 30. That follows the $50 billion that was included in a relief package passed last March as the economy came grinding to a halt as states issued stay-at-home orders and shut down all but essential businesses and services.
This time the money is meant to help the airlines sort of bridge the gap until travel picks up as more and more people are vaccinated and life gets back to normal. Hopefully, that won't take long.
If that's the case, it's certainly good news for all of the airlines, but especially for employees who had been told they would lose their jobs. Between United and American, 27,000 employees were supposed to be furloughed. Now, the companies are telling those employees that they can tear up those notices. Seriously.
"If you have one of those WARN Act notices we sent out in February, tear it up," American Airlines' CEO, Doug Parker, said in an Instagram post.
Obviously, it's very good news that 27,000 people won't lose their jobs. Even better is the reality that, as travel starts to come back, it's a positive sign for all of us.
I've actually traveled a handful of times during the pandemic, including a trip in August to New York City. The reality is that airlines have done about as good a job as any company in terms of balancing safety with trying to continue to serve the needs of their customers. On the flights I took--which were all on Delta--everyone wore a mask, the aircraft was sanitized between flights, and all of the middle seats were blocked. It was probably as safe, if not safer, than a trip to the grocery store.
In some ways, air travel is a lagging indicator of the overall sentiment people have about their own personal safety. Getting on an airplane is likely to be among the last things that people are willing to do. It doesn't matter how safe it is, there will always be a higher degree of anxiety climbing on board an airplane with a few hundred strangers for a few hours. That was true before the current global pandemic.
Of course, we're not there yet. People should still be smart about whether it makes sense to travel, and if so, how to stay safe. Still, the fact that travel is starting to return as a thing people are willing to do is an indicator that we just might be nearing the end of what has certainly been one of the hardest years for everyone. That's certainly good news.