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As airlines continue to plan their rebound strategies from the global coronavirus pandemic, the legendary Gordon Bethune, an expert in turning things around, sees a difficult yet promising future ahead for airplanes and commercial travel.

Gordon Bethune, 79, the legendary former chairman and chief executive officer of Continental Airlines responsible for bringing the airline out of its darkest period to return profits before retiring 15 year ago, recently spoke this week with Skift via Zoom for a long chat on the state of the industry right now.

Never one to pull punches, Bethune offered his unabashed views of the industry facing its worst crisis in its modern history. A U.S. Navy veteran and pilot who has faced challenges throughout a long career in airlines, Bethune offered this metaphor: always keep on eye on the autopilot because things change quickly.

Earlier last month, after nearly a year without stepping in an airport, Bethune and a friend flew from Houston to Moline, Illinois, via Chicago, and back again without incident except for the occasional request from passersby for a selfie with him.

The following is an edited excerpt from the interview.

Skift: What have you learned from watching the airline and travel industry in the grip of the pandemic?

Bethune: One, you don’t know what you have until it’s gone, so you better appreciate today a lot more, because if it’s gone, it may get worse. I don’t think it will, but it is certainly possible for a whole lot of people. I think all of us were maybe not misled, but taken for granted the success of the economy and how well we were doing as a country and a world before this pandemic just destroyed it for everyone and for some people more than others. And, of course, more so for the people that died.  

But we had a wonderful economy worldwide before this pandemic. The United States was doing better than anyone and we were taking it for granted that we were going to be successful all the time. I always said there was no autopilot on the airplane for success. You can turn the autopilot on, but you better follow it, you better fly the airplane every day to be successful. That’s also true of you and I and what we do for a living, there really isn’t any autopilot, you need to keep your eye on it because it can change.

Skift: What do you think Southwest is doing right in avoiding layoffs so far?

Gordon Bethune: They’re absorbing huge losses and they had a balance sheet that would allow them to do it and I admire them for that.  They have a culture against laying off people and the CEO has expressed disdain for the idea, but he did say if you guys don’t contribute something, some change in what you do, we’re going to lay people off in January. So he’s got some obstinate unions which is all unionized at Southwest and he need all of them to contribute some concessions in order to keep everyone  employed and they just don’t want to do it. I don’t know what the issue is, I’m pretty sure it’s just some retractable kind of positions, but they are going to lay people off, like everybody else if they don’t get what they need.

Skift: This is a critical time for crew members and, in particular, pilots, how do they stay current if they’ve been laid off?

Gordon Bethune:  They don’t, that’s the cost of rebuilding. That’s the message I sent to Congress (through a TV appearance), that once you take something down, you just can’t put it back on. So let’s say if you lay off a thousand pilots for six months, you have a hell of [time], because the top senior guy who’s flying the 777, he might bump down to the 737 because of their management of flying and that ’37 pilot goes out the street because it’s all about seniority depending on what he’s bid.

But then you don’t have the pilots for the 777 anymore because they’ve bumped down to keep their job to a ’73 pilot so you’ve got to figure out how to keep everybody current and how to keep all these parts in place. It’s very expensive to bring them back. A thousand pilots on the streets for six months — whoa, you’re talking a lot of money.

Most of the big boys have plenty of capacity in their own simulators, but there are good alternatives with third-party operators, (training partner) CAE and Boeing even sell time in simulators, but it’s still expensive because you’re paying these people and you’re not even getting anything from them.  Training is expensive and time consuming.

That’s why the X (737 Max) had that particular feature that was designed so you wouldn’t have to do extra training and when you improve an airplane and put the quotation marks around “improve” because it’s not always improvement, you need to train everybody and … So you keep it down to as much of the minimum as you can and that’s part of the problem. There’s not enough capacity to get the whole airline industry back up by let’s say January, without a lot of time and a lot of trouble.  And of course the route network that they fly have gone down, so there are cities that don’t even have an airplane, they don’t fly to some places.

Skift: If you don’t think there is enough capacity to get airlines up and running by January, when do you think it will happen?

Gordon Bethune: I don’t know because every airline is different and has different training requirements and different levels. You know the 787 is not at Delta, they don’t have them. I don’t know how many different airplanes they have, but the more different airplanes. the more expensive, the more difficult to get everything back together. It’s like dropping a box of pencils and trying to get them back the way they were. It’s difficult.

Skift: What advice do you give to airlines trying to rebound and what will it take to build consumer confidence again?

Gordon Bethune: They’re going to have to wait to get a vaccine, it’s not going to happen. Before this Covid, we got on airplanes not worrying about polio, or yellow fever, or any other (disease). People were all inoculated in our country, there was no such thing as the small pox, it’s gone and that’s what needs to happen to Covid before everybody gets back to getting on the airplane, sitting in that middle seat and not worrying about it.

That middle seat while it looks kind of comfortable that there’s a foot and an half between you and the next guy, it’s just that in social distance it’s six feet, so that doesn’t do anything for it. It keeps people from going where they want to go, but it doesn’t add to the safety.

You need consistent, safe reliable air transportation every day.  When you look at the National Transportation Safety Board and you’re in charge of all the safety, where do all the deaths occur? On the highways. It happens every day. Everybody is not used to it, but it’s part of our existence. And how much of the attention does the NTSB give to highway safety versus airline safety? And I ask them why and they say it’s because that’s where the public news comes in because we don’t have crashes, but when there is one it’s big news. So, we’re always going to be in the limelight but it isn’t because we’re going to kill you, it’s because we don’t kill you and when we screw up and do, it’s national news, it’s worldwide news.

Skift: Do you think airlines can survive without another coronavirus relief or Payroll Support Program from Congress?

Gordon Bethune: No, they’ll make it. As you mentioned, this last Thanksgiving the number of people who flew, people are ready to get out. You can only be afraid before you just face your fears and get out there and run and people are starting to do that. The airlines are building back up and I don’t know how long it will take them to get to pre-Covid levels of service, but they are showing you that they are operating well in the middle of this horrible time. And they have a plan, as the market comes back, they’ll come back.

Editor’s Note: Full disclosure, in a previous life, Ruthy Muñoz worked as a flight attendant for ExpressJet, which was part of Continental Airlines when Bethune was CEO.

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Tags: airlines, coronavirus

Photo credit: Former Continental Airlines CEO Gordon Bethune. Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Skift

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