How the pandemic changes the way we travel
The COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on travel is unlike any other downturn the aviation industry has ever faced. We sat down with Jon Hemmerdinger, Americas Managing Editor at FlightGlobal, to capture his thoughts on the past, present and future of flying.
Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on Dec. 10 2020, thus all information regarding the COVID-19 vaccine may not be up to date at the time of publishing.
Rebecca Schupp (RS) 0:00
Hello and welcome to the Xpress magazine podcast. My name is Rebecca Schupp.
I am joined today by Jon Hemmerdinger. He’s the Americas Managing Editor at FlightGlobal.
Hi, Jon, thank you so much for being here.
John Hemmerdinger (JH) 0:14
Rebecca, thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
OK, John, so why don’t you tell us a little bit more about yourself.
I’m the Americas Managing Editor for FlightGlobal, and I’ve been in this role about eight years. Prior to that I was somewhat new to being a journalist. I actually graduated with a degree in history in 2000, and I didn’t know what to do with that. I went into sales for seven years, but I have always been a writer. I was a writer all through school, ever since I was a little kid. So I went back to school and I got a degree in journalism. I picked up an internship, and then worked at a daily newspaper in Maine, the Portland Press Herald; I had a few other roles before I found FlightGlobal in 2013. I’ve always had an interest in aviation and airplanes. Although not a pilot, travel was always something that interested me. It turned out that it was a pretty good fit. It’s been one of the better jobs, or better places to work, I’ve ever worked.
Can you tell us a little bit more about FlightGlobal?
FlightGlobal — the company — publishes a magazine called Flight International. Flight International and FlightGlobal are based out of London. They published their first magazine in 1903, right around the start of powered flight. It has been one of the leading magazines covering aviation and airlines. It’s a little bit less known in the United States for much of its history. At this point we have a monthly magazine, no longer a weekly magazine. We switched to a monthly format. We have a website called flightglobal.com. It’s a subscription website; You pay for access to it. We have offices and bureaus in London, Singapore and the United States. I head our United States news bureau, which essentially means that I cover all of North and South America, and also the Caribbean.
What do you write about mostly?
I specifically write about aircraft manufacturers and their suppliers. These are companies who may or may not have heard of: Honeywell, Raytheon, Collins Aerospace. Those are some of the bigger ones. There are literally thousands of smaller companies, but we can’t cover them all.
COVID happened, and you’ve probably been worried, what’s going to happen to the flight industry. Everything shut down. Flying was considered to be very, very dangerous in terms of getting infected. If you had to look back at the year 2020, in the aviation and travel industry, what would be your brief analysis of that?
It has been as bad as anything well, far worse than anyone imagined, unless there were some people at some point who could look forward and believe that we could end up here. Maybe if you looked at it with a clear set of eyes, you could have seen how bad it was going to be because of what was happening and in other places outside the U.S. But it just seemed inconceivable that the whole aviation industry could shut down. We were at, essentially, the last time I traveled was February of this year, February 2020, just as COVID was starting to spread outside of Asia and I traveled to the Singapore airshow FlightGlobal had, we brought in a bunch of reporters. And then we covered the Singapore Air Show, we didn’t know whether to go because there was some talk about COVID. And there were some cases in Singapore, but we ended up going anyway. And none of us caught the virus, but it was, you know, you’re a little bit just cautious and nervous. And then we got back and that’s when the entire aviation industry just shut down. Travel fell off in March by, I’m guessing something like 80%. I’m guessing because international travel was down almost 100%, domestic U.S. travel is back to something like 45 or 50%. I don’t think it’s at 50 yet, of what it was a year ago. Airlines essentially got lucky because the industry received some financial aid earlier this year from the U.S. government, and that enabled them to avoid layoffs, but only until the end of September. So they got all this funding from the government. The government said you can only use the money to pay for employee expenses. So, that allowed them to avoid all these layoffs, but September came and went and that money expired. And that’s when the layoffs just have started at the airlines and thousands of people have lost their jobs. And then it’s interesting, because the airlines were previously in a period of unbridled expansion and growth. It had been like crazy. They were just, they couldn’t get enough new airplanes. They have these huge — globally, all around the world — huge orders with Airbus and Boeing. And suddenly, they’re essentially grounding half their planes because they don’t have anyone on them. Suddenly Boeing and Airbus have very, very few customers who actually want to take planes. And these companies have these huge factories and supply chains. It doesn’t stop on a dime. And so these companies, Airbus, and Boeing have continued making jets that don’t have a customer to take. Airlines or some of them are in bankruptcy, others then we’re saying I can’t, I can’t just can’t take it right now. I don’t want it. So Airbus and Boeing have started accumulating their own inventory of jets, and now they’re bringing down their production rates. And the whole, like, world of aerospace has been sort of down the drain this year.
What did that or didn’t mean for you as a journalist who’s writing about this industry?
Yeah, it meant that there’s no shortage of things to write about. In fact, we’ve probably been busier than we ever have. We spent the first two weeks of March and April just writing dozens of stories, sometimes many stories a day about American Airlines is grounding its jets, are pulling back their flights. And Air Canada is doing the same. And down in South America, they’re doing it, and all over the world, everyone is just grounding their aircraft. And then on top of that, you know, I’m following the 737 Max and Boeing’s hurting badly from that. So you compound all this together, and Boeing’s financial struggles are real and bad. And they’re trying to hang on. And every day, there’s just more, just a lot of bad news to write about, to the point where you get to where you just, like, you don’t want to write any bad news again, it starts to actually take a toll on you. The good news is, like, maybe we’re starting to turn a corner now. So there is like at least maybe we’re not going downhill, still, we might still start to climb back up at this point. But nothing certain yet.
What was your favorite story to write this year, or maybe the most interesting or impactful story that you wrote about this year?
One thing that has sort of distracted me a little bit from the covering of the industry’s woes is there’s a lot of new technology coming down the pipe right now that involves electric aircraft. And these other types of propulsion that do not involve burning as much hydrogen or emitting as much carbon dioxide. So, the industry has this aggressive goal to reduce its carbon dioxide output by 50%, in like 30 years, 50% in 30 years seems like well, we can meet that. But really, it perhaps cannot be met. Just because a new aircraft engine takes a decade to make. And when they make them, they’re only a smidgen better than the previous one. So it’s an aggressive goal. All that said, there are many, many companies out there who are developing electric powered and hybrid electric powered aircraft. And then there’s also companies that are investing in hydrogen powered aircraft. They’re not all new technologies. Hydrogen is not new, but it’s something that never caught on. Hybrid electric and electric cars are new to aviation. And I’ve been lucky to be able to write about some of these companies. A lot of what some of them are doing is building a whole new aircraft, which will be hybrid electric and others are taking old aircraft like a 20 year old Cessna that might carry five passengers, and they’re putting an electric or hybrid electric engine in it. And it’s kind of starting to happen. And all that said, it still has a very long way to go. And hybrid electric and electric may not actually be the solution in the near term. Because those batteries just cannot power something like a 737 or 777, you would need to fill the plane with batteries. It just doesn’t make sense yet, but we’re starting to get there for smaller aircrafts, maybe up to nine passengers, short flights, that kind of thing.
Looking ahead, what are your expectations for the aviation, or air travel industry in 2021?
Yeah, that’s a good question. It’s hard to say because it all depends on the vaccine. It seems like the vaccine is going to be approved maybe even today, or in the next day or so by the FDA and it’s been approved by the UK Government. That vaccine has to be really widespread and I think the virus has to be under control before the industry is going to see significant recovery. So that will mean that the industry should recover. Most people are saying it should start to recover significantly in 2021. There are some indications that short-haul travel, so within Europe, for instance, might climb back to 80% or 75% of what it was last year, which would be a huge game. As for the U.S., I don’t know if we’ll get there. The other piece is long-haul international overseas travel and that is generally thought to take significantly longer to come back. Part of the reason is because it’s fairly easy to jump on a plane even now and fly from Florida, to Chicago, there may be some quarantines when you get there. But traveling between borders, between countries means dealing with other countries, quarantines, testing procedures and testing requirements. And then people fear maybe legitimately that they won’t be able to get on a plane and come back. So they get stuck where they are, so that those hurdles are going to take a long time to work out. Countries are trying to put in place similar protocols and similar regulations. At least the industry is trying to get countries to do this. But it was so many bureaucrats involved in so many different opinions and it’s very hard even within the United States, let alone within the countries of the world to reach any consensus on what the proper travel protocols and requirements should be. Which means that the industry probably will not begin to recover until the virus is under control. Really, I shouldn’t say begin, it’s already beginning to recover. But the full recovery will come after it’s under control. And people are saying it may recover back to 2019 levels by 2024/2025.
What kind of economic recovery will the industry see, and how will this be different from previous downturns?
Previous downturns have not been nearly anything like as bad as we’re having today. There was a downturn during the 2008/2009 recession in the U.S. there was a downturn then and then the previous bad downturn before that was after 9/11. And that was pretty, that was a significant shock to the aviation industry. But this has been like nothing anyone could even imagine or has ever seen. So it’s going to take a lot, a lot of time, a lot more time than previous downturns. It’s generally thought if the vaccine takes hold, and if people around the world start to get vaccinated, and in eight months, the virus is no longer spreading and it’s under control, and then the industry could come back maybe even quicker, but it’s going to take some time. And in the meantime, it’s going to really hurt airlines, the airlines’ employees and the companies that make the jets, Boeing, Airbus, Embraer, all those, all of them are really going to suffer in that whole sector of the economy is going to be struggling for a while.
What doesn’t mean struggling? Do you think they’re gonna have to let go of people? What are they actually doing to survive?
Well, right now, they’re shrinking. They’re cutting employees, airlines are laying off, aerospace companies are laying off. Boeing is laying off something like I think it’s 20% of its workforce, the workforce was over 100,000 by the end of 2019. And when you bring that down through the supply chain, you’re talking about thousands and thousands of more layoffs, companies are probably going to go out of business. It’s not thought that Boeing or Airbus are going to go out of business and that that’s not being discussed. And also Boeing is such a national and nationally important company to the U.S. economy and U.S. industrial base, they’re probably not going to be let go out of business. But the suppliers, the smaller companies, and some of these are mom-and-pop shops, I don’t know, under 10 employees or something. Companies who make a little widget that’s on a plane and suddenly Airbus and Boeing don’t need them, any of them. And you won’t hear about it in the news because they’re so small, but they’ll go out of business and they won’t be there anymore. That kind of thing.
How has COVID changed the way we travel in the long term?
I don’t know what people are going to be thinking in the future, but I suspect that once the virus is gone, that people will not be afraid to fly anymore. They won’t be afraid to sit next to someone on a plane anymore. But there are certain technologies that are being developed now that are going to carry into the future and that people are going to expect in the future. And it’s even small things, like, you go to an airport bathroom and they have automatic sinks and automatic towel dispensers and auto flush toilets, but none of that stuff’s on a plane. So they’re talking about getting that stuff on the plane on aircraft, they’re talking about systems that use ultraviolet lights, so when someone exits an aircraft lavatory, the system comes in and it uses the light to sanitize everything. And then the next person comes in and it’s perfectly clean and there’s no viruses to worry about. There’s some talk about something called health passports, where as you get in, this is COVID related, it hasn’t been implemented, but you get a little paper or passport they call it which says you had the vaccine, and you’re cleared of COVID. And therefore you can travel without having to go through all these hoops like other people. The airlines are rolling out all sorts of touchless technology and touchless check-in. They’ve already had some of this, but you still got to touch that screen when you do the auto check-in. Now, I suspect when we’re back to not worrying about COVID that things might get a little bit back to how it was before. Now, one interesting thing is all the U.S. airlines have eliminated those change fees that people hate so much. Those are all gone now. Because airlines, I believe, are so desperate not to lose fat and to get more bookings. So it will be interesting to see whether they have realized that they don’t need those fees, and maybe that their customers like it a little bit better without those fees or whether they’re going to start to creep back in the next few years. And it’ll start low, it’ll probably start at $25 and $50. And then they’ll creep back up to where they were. So that’s something to watch. And interesting.
Thank you so much for your expertise, and sharing your thoughts and also, you know, expectations for the future. I think this will be really interesting for our audience, especially with the vaccine coming and traveling is becoming a thing again.
It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me, and for your questions and I appreciate it.
Thank you so much.