Coronavirus crisis 'worse than 9/11' for airlines, says US treasury secretary Mnuchin

'They are almost ground to a halt,' Mr Mnuchin says

Danielle Zoellner
New York
Tuesday 17 March 2020 17:06 GMT
Steven Mnuchin says coronavirus 'worse than 9/11' for airline industry

The coronavirus has been called "worse than 9/11" for the airline industry by US Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin.

During a press conference on Tuesday, Mr Mnuchin spoke about the economic impact Covid-19 has on the airline industry, which has significantly reduced both domestic and international flights as people are implored to stay home.

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He called the outbreak "worse than 9/11" for the industry.

When the 11 September, 2001 terrorist attack happened in New York City, the airspace in the US and Canada was closed except for military, police, and medical flights. This closure lasted only a few days, though, until the airspace was opened again on 13 September.

But airlines are now going on multiple weeks of having the cancel flights and reduce its staff to combat the number of people who are no longer flying.

"They are almost ground to a halt," Mr Mnuchin said.

"The president wants to make sure that although we don’t want people to travel unless it’s critical, we want to maintain for critical travel the right to have domestic travel," he added. 

Federal officials have circulated the idea of halting domestic travel in the US briefly in response to the coronavirus spread, which would be an unprecedented move only last seen during 9/11. If domestic flights were stopped, it would be expected to last longer than just a few days. The government already called a Level 4 travel advisory on China, Iran, and most of Europe to prevent people from travelling. 

But Mnuchin reiterated other options are being circulated to prevent grounding planes. 

Congress and the White House are currently weighing an economic response to help keep the airline industry afloat during the pandemic.

Airlines for America (A4A), a lobbying group, pressed Congress on Monday to provide an economic response to airlines having to significantly reduce staff and flights as quickly as possible. The group is asking for $50m emergency assistance from the federal government.

“This is a today problem, not a tomorrow problem. It requires urgent action,” A4A President and CEO Nicholas Calio said in a press release.

The money would go towards providing airlines short and long term relief during the pandemic in the form of grants, loans, and tax breaks. 

President Trump previously said the government would back the airline industry "100 per cent". But his administration has not revealed exactly what that assistance would look like. “We’re going to be in a position to help the airlines very much," Mr Trump said.

On Sunday, United Airlines announced it was cutting flights by 50 per cent for April and May. American Airlines also announced it was reducing its international flights by 75 per cent. Delta Air Lines temporarily sidelined 300 of its planes in "largest capacity reduction in Delta’s history", CEO Ed Bastian said in a memo. 

Internationally, British Airways said it would reduce its flight numbers by 75 per cent.

Even when regular flying resumes domestically and globally after the coronavirus pandemic, it is going to take months for the airline industry to rebound from its economic losses and staff reductions.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents 82 per cent of air traffic, predicts the airline industry will lose between $63bn to $113bn depending on how the virus continues to spread, according to a release.

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