DALLAS — It’s hard to pick the worst day of 2020 for the airline industry.
For Southwest Airlines pilot Jon Weaks, head of the Dallas-based carrier’s pilots union, it was just before St. Patrick’s Day, when rumors spread that the entire aviation industry would be grounded in an attempt to combat the COVID-19 pandemic spreading across the globe like a wildfire on a dry, windy day.
“When you look at 9/11, we lost 3,000 people that day and it devastated the industry,” Weaks said. “Now we are losing almost that many people a day to the coronavirus. I didn’t realize it would be such a visceral gut punch.”
From the early days of the pandemic to the fight for survival, here’s a look back at some of this year’s toughest days for the airline industry:
Following confirmation that an American woman in Chicago was the first confirmed positive COVID-19 case, American Airlines pilots and flight attendants started calling for the Fort Worth-based carrier to shut down flights to China, allow face masks and take other measures to halt the spread of the emerging disease that was evolving from a regional illness to a global outbreak.
“We’re going to watch it and make sure that we take aggressive action if there is a need to,” American Airlines President Robert Isom said.
Within days, American and other airlines were canceling flights to China as demand evaporated to the world’s most populous nation. Then flights to other parts of Asia were dropped.
By early March, American and Southwest Airlines started to see waves of ticket cancellations from customers skeptical about flying abroad or to crowded cities in the United States.
On March 12, fear became reality when President Donald Trump enacted sweeping travel restrictions on travelers into the United States.
Southwest CEO Gary Kelly went on CNBC and said the airline needed to persevere through a few tough weeks. State and local governments enacted shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders.
Airlines started taking loans for billions of dollars to brace themselves for a rough month of March and maybe even into April.
Congress granted airlines $25 billion in payroll relief to cover employee costs through September.
Only 87,534 passengers went through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints on April 14 in U.S. airports, the fewest number of travelers since the 1950s. Passenger volume that day was down more than 96% from a year before.
This was the low point for U.S. aviation traffic during the pandemic, but even now, airline consultants and executives don’t know when passenger demand will recover to 2019 levels.
With customers terrified about the close confines of commercial air travel, American and Southwest Airlines joined competitors in requiring face masks and coverings to get on board a plane.
U.S. airlines reported $5.2 billion in losses in the first quarter and executives were realizing that the COVID-19 pandemic showed no signs of just going away.
After freezing hiring in March and putting off spending, American Airlines told employees that it would need to “right-size” the company, a term not heard in the industry since the long-forgotten days of bankruptcy and recession.
Airline leaders started offering voluntary leave and buyouts.
On June 1, Southwest followed suit with the “most generous buyout package in our history.”
People tired of social distancing got back on airplanes over Memorial Day weekend and people across the country celebrated the end of school and the beginning of summer by traveling. Unfortunately, that led to another spike in COVID-19 cases in Texas and across the country.
Passenger traffic stalled in June. By the end of July, airlines were talking about layoffs. On July 15, American Airlines sent 25,000 layoff and furlough notices to employees, noting that it would cut its 5,000-employee administrative staff by a third.
“If things don’t improve, this just can’t continue,” Southwest’s Kelly told The Dallas Morning News in early September. “We can’t lose the kind of cash we lost in the second quarter, for quarter upon quarter upon quarter. We’d be out of business.”
Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly and his counterpart at American Airlines, Doug Parker, turned to lawmakers for more aid with passengers not returning yet.
Some 17,500 American Airlines employees were furloughed on Oct. 1 after restrictions on the government’s aid to airlines ran out.
Southwest didn’t furlough employees in 2020, but told workers that they would need to take a 10% pay cut in 2021 for all union workers to keep their jobs.
Congress passed a $900 billion economic stimulus package days before Christmas that included about $15 billion to cover airline employee payrolls between Dec. 1 and March 31.
American Airlines got to work getting paychecks ready for Christmas Eve distribution and mailed recall letters to furloughed employees.
There was some uncertainty about whether Trump would reject the package, but he ultimately signed it on Dec. 27. A day later, Southwest Airlines said it doesn’t currently expect to furlough workers or cut pay in 2021 because of the federal help.