Skift Take

There were naysayers after 9/11 that said people would never fly again in droves out of security concerns, and now Covid and its variant joint-venture partners have rocked the travel industry. History has shown, however, that "travel" and the human spirit are indomitable.

Twenty years after American Airlines flight 11 and United Airlines flight 175 obliterated the World Trade Center and carved an indelible spot in our collective conscience, American Airlines flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, all followed by the heroic passenger fightback on United flight 93, which dove into the sod of Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the airline industry — and the globe — are dealing with stubborn challenges.

While the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration grounded all flights in the country that morning, and all the yellow blips of airlines on radar screens faded to black, the global aviation industry in 2020 and 2021 — and with variants who knows for how much longer — saw Covid retire chunks of their fleets, and passenger traffic whipsaw based on lockdowns, restrictions, and an almost, but not quite, innate instinct to travel, and see the world.

One lesson from 9/11 — and the Great Recession — is that the airline industry and the country will be back, albeit in altered states.

“Almost two decades ago, demand similarly evaporated after the 9/11 terrorist attacks led to a nationwide grounding and fear of flying that persisted for several years,” wrote Beth Daley of the Conversation US in 2020.

After a couple of years, with bolstered cockpit doors and security equipments staffed by a new Transportation Security Administration, “the airline industry eventually did recover, and Americans once again were flying in record numbers,” Daley wrote.

As of July 2021, according to the airline trade group IATA, passenger traffic showed “significant momentum” compared to the prior month, “but demand remained far below pre-pandemic levels” as restrictions and lockdowns delay recovery.

But many predict there will be a record recovery if Covid and its joint venture variant partners ever get under wraps.

The U.S. airline industry of 2021 doesn’t resemble the carrier field of 9/11 as there have been at least eight airline mergers over the years, including Delta-Northwest (2008), United-Continental and Southwest-AirTran (both 2010), and American Airlines-US Airways (2013), so consolidation has ran amok. And, of course, the U.S. airlines have benefited during the Covid crisis from $74 billion in federal relief.

On the 20th anniversary of September 11, it was great to see American Airlines tweet its solidarity with United Airlines, the two carriers whose aircraft went down amidst so much loss of life that day.

But if airline consolidation has taken hold, and the airlines are united against the evil that shattered that historic day, the United States is a house divided as evidenced by the January 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol, and the epidemic of physical attacks on U.S. airline staff from mask abstainers.

It seems like decades ago — it’s only one — when then-President Barack Obama announced from the White House in 2011 that the U.S. had killed 9/11 fomenter Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, and the country’s red state-blue state divide seemed somewhat less insurmountable than it does today.

The airlines, dealing with bedlam in coach at times, are the ones left to deal with some of this mess. The Biden administration announced Friday that the Transportation Security Administration, born out of 9/11 security requirements, would double fines for first-time offending passengers who refuse to wear masks in airports, planes, and trains, but prosecutions of the worst offenders remain sparse indeed.

Beyond mask refuseniks, vaccine inequities, and persistent Covid hangovers, climate change looms as an existential threat that will color and threaten recoveries for decades. If only the world — including the gas-guzzling aviation industry — had begun to address global warming 20 years ago, then perhaps ever-increasing climate disruptions wouldn’t be as intense as they are today.

In the interim, rest assured that a pared-down airline industry, cities, hotels, and even business travel will be back, albeit in somewhat transformed configurations.

History shows us that.

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Tags: 9/11, american airlines, climate change, covid-19, flight attendants, flights, masks, mergers, september 11, tsa, united airlines

Photo credit: Flight 93 Flight Path Walkway at the 9/11 Memorial near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Craig Fildes / Flickr

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