JetBlue CEO discusses COVID-19’s impact on airlines

WASHINGTON (AP) – Airlines are starting to see a slight rise in bookings, but air travel remains down about 90 per cent, prompting speculation about which carriers might go under.

JetBlue Airways CEO Robin Hayes admited he doesn’t know how quickly air travel will recover from the coronavirus outbreak, and no matter what, his will be a smaller airline. Hayes, however, is confident that all large airlines in the US will survive.

He talked recently with The Associated Press about making passengers feel safe while flying, what types of trips people will take first, and how COVID-19 will bring permanent changes to the airline business.

Q. How are bookings now?

A. The low point in terms of demand was around the middle of April when the US domestic air system was carrying about two per cent to four per cent of what they normally carry. In the last four weeks, that sort of moved up to I’d say between nine per cent to 10 per cent, but still a tiny fraction of what we had expected it to be. So we are still in a very critically grave situation. We have seen that in the last week or so that bookings have outpaced cancellations for the for the first time.

JetBlue Airways CEO Robin Hayes inside an Airbus A321 aircraft at JFK Airport in New York. PHOTO: AP

Q. How much flying will JetBlue do in June and July?

June actually we are going to be flying about 25 per cent to 30 per cent of our normal schedule. We haven’t taken it beyond June yet, but obviously the summer will be significantly less flights than last summer.

Q. What are you doing to make people comfortable about flying?

A. (We are) making sure our crew members are healthy when they come to work. Secondly, really focussing on clean air and surfaces, for example, cleaning and sanitising and disinfecting airplanes frequently. Thirdly, more space and fewer touch points … and also continuing with our commitment of offering flexibility so if your plans change and you need to cancel your flight, you can change that and we rebook that at no cost within a two-year period.

Q. What are you doing to maintain social distancing on flights?

A. We committed that no one will sit next to you on an airplane that you don’t know or aren’t travelling with through to July 6. We’re actually capping flights currently at about 60 per cent (occupancy) because we are also blocking rows around our in-flight crew members to protect them and our customers.

Q. How long can you keep blocking lots of seats?

A. It’s not sustainable for an extended period of time, but it’s important for people right now.

The break-even load factor (or occupancy level) for an airline is usually around 75 per cent to 80 per cent. My view is that once people fly and they see all the things that we’ve put in place it will feel to them no different than a trip to the grocery store or something else that they may be doing, and they get more comfortable with it.

Q. What else should airlines or the government do?

A. No one thing that you do in itself protects you from the threat that you are trying to mitigate, but it’s a series of things that you do together that have that protective effect. And so, we were the first airline to mandate face coverings for both crew members and customers. (We are) disinfecting and sanitising airplanes more frequently. Making sure people have a seat next to them that’s open. We do support temperature checks being performed in the US by the TSA.

We think that should be performed as a government function. So it’s consistent across how that is performed. I think all of these things add together to keep aviation safe.