It’s likely that no sudden crisis in the annals of American capitalism has unleashed greater devastation on any industry than the coronavirus’s blow to U.S. airlines. Start with the 80% to 90% drop in ticket sales, and social distancing precautions that leave middle seats empty and the few planes airborne often half-full. Then add the prospect that companies will sharply curb pricey business travel, and the gigantic accumulation of debt required to buck those many headwinds, and it would be logical to conclude that this critical sector can’t survive in anything like its current form.
“How do you design an industry for 40% of the traffic it was getting the year before—and that’s the best-case scenario for 2020?” says Joe Brancatelli, publisher of the business travel site JoeSentMe.com. “We could be facing a wave of bankruptcies or even reregulation. The new normal is impossible to predict.”