Commentary

A Tweet Makes United Airlines Look Bad As Woes Worsen For The Industry

While United Airlines catches social media heat for a doctor’s tweeted photo of a fully packed flight from Newark to San Francisco Saturday, the world’s second-oldest airline, Avianca, has filed for bankruptcy and The New York Times is telling readers that as “terrible” as the airline business is right now, “it will probably even get worse.”

University of California San Francisco cardiologist Ethan Weiss was returning home Saturday with more than two dozen other doctors and nurses who have been working in New York City hospitals. 

“Since early April, United Airlines has been providing free round-trip flights to New York City for medical volunteers who wanted to help fight against the COVID-19 crisis. Yesterday, Weiss tweeted a selfie that shows his jam-packed plane,” writes  Suzanne Rowan Kelleher for Forbes.

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That and subsequent tweets went viral.

“I guess @united is relaxing their social distancing policy these days?” he wrote. “Every seat full on this 737.”

“On April 22, United announced it was ‘limiting seat selections in all cabins, so customers won’t be able to select seats next to each other or middle seats where available.’ However, the airline later clarified this does not mean all passengers will have an empty seat beside them; due to load factors or passenger requests, it's possible the flight could be full -- as it appeared to be on Weiss' Newark-to-SFO trip,” Katie Dowd writes  for SFGate.

“United flew us here for free. They got a lot of great PR for taking great care of us on the way out including from me,” Weiss also tweeted. “They could have avoided this by just communicating better. They literally just sent an email 10 days ago telling all of us the middle seats would be empty,” he added.

“In a statement to ABC7, United did not directly address the reasons for the lack of physical distancing, but said: ‘We've overhauled our cleaning and safety procedures and implemented a new boarding and deplaning process to promote social distancing … and all passengers and employees were asked to wear face coverings, consistent with our new policy,’” Dowd reports.

Meanwhile, Avianca Holdings, Latin America’s second-largest airline and the second-oldest continually operating airline in the world after KLM, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in New York yesterday, Reuters’ Marcelo Rochabrun, Devika Krishna Kumar and Nelson Bocanegra report. It will continue to operate as it restructures.

Avianca “[failed] to meet a bond payment deadline, while its pleas for coronavirus aid from Colombia’s government have so far been unsuccessful,” they write.

The prognosis is bleak across the industry.

“Passenger traffic is down about 94% and half of the industry’s 6,215 planes are parked at major airports and desert airstrips, according to Airlines for America, a trade group,” Niraj Chokshi writes  for The New York Times.

“The current crisis could push some airlines, especially smaller ones, into bankruptcy or make them takeover targets. Consumer fears about catching the virus on crowded planes could lead to reconfigured seating. Carriers may initially entice wary travelers with discounts, but if they can’t fill up flights, they may resort to raising ticket prices,” Chokshi continues.

“There’s little indication that a recovery is coming soon. Most industry analysts and executives expect years to pass before airlines fly as many passengers as they did before the pandemic. Even then, a rebound may come in fits and starts, propelled by medical advancements, an economic rebound and shifts in the public’s tolerance for risk,” Chokshi adds.

That portends poorly for the folks who get the rest of us to wherever we need to go.

“U.S. airline workers have been largely spared from the carnage that's pushed the country's unemployment to record highs since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. But those same workers  --  roughly 750,000 pilots, flight attendants, baggage handlers, mechanics and others -- will soon be among the most at-risk for losing their jobs,” writes Chris Isidore for CNN Business.

“The federal bailout for the airline industry barred layoffs, involuntary furloughs or pay cuts for employees. But executives have been blunt that job cuts are coming once that prohibition lifts on October 1, with estimates that up to a third of the sector's jobs could disappear,” he continues.

“‘Ultimately, we will likely see 95,000 to 105,000 jobs lost in the U.S. airline industry,’ said Helane Becker, airline analyst at financial services firm Cowen, in a note,” Isidore reports.

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