You can debate about in-flight studies on the risk of spreading infection. But American Airlines at least has the hard evidence that its guest-facing workers have a reported lower infection rate than the company as a whole or than the urban areas where they tend to work. That bodes well for a business travel rebound.
Airline executives reacted cautiously on Thursday to the news that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made a “strong recommendation” that Americans do not travel during the Thanksgiving holiday next week as the coronavirus pandemic surges in the U.S.
“We really encourage everyone to take precautions and make sure you’re wearing masks and follow CDC guidelines,” said Robert Isom, president of American Airlines Group and American Airlines, on Thursday at Skift Aviation Forum held online. “If you’re going to travel, what we’re doing at American is we’re making things as safe as possible.”
One question hanging over the aviation industry is whether business travel will come back full steam once the crisis subsides.
“There’s pent-up demand for business travel,” Isom said. “That’s what we hear from our corporate clients.”
Sean Donohue, CEO of Dallas Fort Worth (DFW) International Airport, the third-busiest airport globally and home to American’s largest hub, agreed.
“Could we have an interruption in the next few months, sure,” Donohue said. “But I don’t see any drama as I tour the halls … On the business side, there’s a spirit to travel. I’ve been in the industry for 35 years. As many complaints as you’ve heard about travel sometimes in the past, there is this spirit. Could I see a component of business travel changing permanently, well, in one segment, yes, I could see some internal travel in a company, maybe, drop … But overall, I see business travel coming back.”
Donohue said the airport is looking at providing coronavirus instant tests to customers who want them.
“Domestic, in our opinion, is going to recover much faster than international,” Donohue said. “What can we do as an industry to accelerate the return of international? I believe that testing would be an important element of that.”
Isom was upbeat about air travel’s long-term despite the pandemic and noted the company’s pandemic safety record.
“We have a great concern for our team and our customers alike,” Isom said. “We’ve safely transported people throughout the pandemic. We can provide an environment that’s as safe as possible, including from coming into the airport…. Take a look at the statistics. The number of cases of possible transmission on planes is less than 50 on a billion traveled.”
Isom noted that American Airlines Group has what he called a good record as a company in coping with the crisis.
“It’s noteworthy that we have a large team that works in urban areas where infection rates are high,” Isom said. “American Airlines as 100,000 team members. The company as a whole has infection rates less than the national average, despite being in urban areas. And our customer-facing team members — our flight attendants and our agents — have lower infection rates than the company as a whole.”
Photo credit: An American Airlines Boeing 787 aircraft at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. Dallas Fort Worth International Airport