Air Traffic: A Lesson on Pandemic Economics from the Airlines

As yesterday’s presser and tweets make clear, Donald Trump is jonesing to reopen the economy in the United States. He’s doing that even as the airline industry is weighing whether to voluntarily shut down.

Thus far, according to NBC, Trump has opposed such a shutdown because he fears how the optics will affect his own political fortunes.

One point of tension as Trump tries to balance public and economic health has been air travel. He has repeatedly raised concerns in meetings about the optics of grounded planes and empty airports, according to two people familiar with the meetings. He’s argued that those images would look bad for him and could further drag down the economy, they said, while others have made the case for sharply curtailing air travel.

But according to the WSJ, airlines are considering shutting down voluntarily anyway. There are several reasons the airlines want to shut down (and would prefer to be ordered to do so).

The first and most obvious is that what flights are flying now are so empty they’re losing revenue.

On Monday, thousands of  flights were canceled, in some cases because planes weren’t full enough to justify the trip, with passengers numbering in the single digits. Some planes that did take off have been emptier than ever before. For example, a flight between New York’s LaGuardia Airport and Washington DC had just three passengers. American Airlines Group Inc. and United Airlines Holdings Inc. canceled over 40% of scheduled flights Monday, according to, a flight tracking site. Some airline officials expect planes to be even emptier as the week goes on.


But in the past few days, according to some of these officials, the prospect of an eventual halt has increased for various reasons, including mounting red ink from flying nearly empty planes.

There’s a bit in the story about concerns on the part of flight crews and onerous efforts to adjust schedules to minimize the possibility that crews can infect each other.

But by far, the biggest reason the nation’s airlines may shut down, voluntarily or not, is that infections at a number of air-traffic control facilities have shut down “nearly a dozen” facilities, including towers at Chicago’s Midway and Las Vegas’ McCarran Airports.

Airlines are preparing for the possibility that contagion-driven staffing emergencies at air-traffic control facilities could force the issue, making it impossible to continue operating in parts of the country.

Airport towers at Chicago’s Midway International Airport and McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas remain closed after nearly a week of cleaning.


A separate important factor is that Federal Aviation Administration officials fear that additional positive tests for Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, among agency controllers and technicians who maintain their equipment could unravel the nation’s air-traffic control system. Nearly a dozen traffic-control facilities from New York to Chicago to Las Vegas have been temporarily closed to disinfect and clean them, with many more employees at home on self-quarantine while others are being investigated for potential contacts with infected workers.

So far, longstanding FAA contingency plans have managed to deal with the closures by imposing temporary flight restrictions, rerouting planes and shifting responsibilities among backup facilities and employees. Inside the agency, though, concern is growing that new employee infections, especially at key locations, could upend existing contingency options. In some cases, replacing controllers removed from their radar screens would be extremely difficult because it typically takes months of training to get them up to speed to do specific jobs.

Three days ago, traffic for the entire NYC area shut down briefly after a trainee who had been working at a Long Island air traffic control facility tested positive.

Flights into major New York City-area airports were briefly halted on Saturday, as the coronavirus continues to cause staffing issues at air-traffic control facilities around the country,  the Federal Aviation Administration said.

An air traffic controller-trainee based at a control center on Long Island tested positive for the virus, COVID-19, the FAA said. The trainee hadn’t been in the facility since March 17 but the agency is working with local health authorities to sanitize and clean affected areas. The center is operational, it said.

The FAA map of disruptions show the NYC area remains a problem.

This seems to offer an illustration that advisors can use to explain to Trump and his Fox News enablers why he may not be able to reopen the economy next week, and he seems headed to do. Aside from the fact that states and (unless Trump actually does use the Defense Production Act, which FEMA will only start using today) corporations can simply ignore him, there are critical functions of our economy that are proving unmanageable given the way infections can shut down key cogs of national and global systems. Until there’s testing and disinfecting regime that can ensure a single sick person doesn’t bring that network down, it’s not clear Trump has the ability to reopen the economy.

We would be better off, in my opinion, if Trump’s advisors had given him a list of things that had to happen — testing, medical equipment, and a screening regime like the ones used in Asia — before he could reopen the economy. Thus far, Trump’s efforts to meet those needs have been inadequate.

For now, however, he might look to the airlines’ inability to manage a relatively small number of infections among air traffic controllers, even during a time of sharply curtailed flights, to understand why it’s not as simple as saying we’ll just have to tolerate some illnesses.

28 replies
  1. ThomasH says:

    Thank you for this! I was unaware of the staffing problems in the air traffic control facilities. It’s obvious that the same issue exists for any work place, and therefore the entire economy. Trump’s mismanagement and malevolent personality will keep his focus entirely short term as well as on anything self serving.

  2. Tom says:

    I’m waiting for the political cartoon that will show President Trump standing proudly atop a pyramid of skulls with a dialogue balloon proclaiming: “America’s open for business!”

    • Wayne says:

      I respect a President that places as few limitations on personal liberties as possible. We’ll deal better with this pandemic by coming together to act on the instructions of medical experts and avoid critcizing the President or others who know far more about the issues than we do.

      • Rayne says:

        “few limitations on personal liberties” means something entirely different to a malignant narcissist than you think it does.

        Failing to do anything to save American lives when it’s your job isn’t a preservation of personal liberties. It’s negligent homicide.

        Shall we ask the friends and family of the 100 Michiganders who died from COVID-19 yesterday just how free they feel today?

        Welcome to emptywheel. Bring something more than platitudes and blind obeisance.

      • PhoneInducedPinkEye says:

        You would be hard pressed to find any arena where Trump has even baseline knowledge. Even if he did, his decisions so far have ignored intelligence briefings and medical expert advice until it was too late.

        By giving his administration and his enablers a pass, you are giving them permission to make the same forced errors in the future.

  3. BobCon says:

    There are lots of points of failure in the IT world too.

    I worked at a corporation where key functionality of a vital legacy system lay with a single guy who was in his early 60s. Everyone who worked with him knew that if he suddenly quit at the wrong time, the company would grind to a halt, but management refused to pay the money to do the necessary knowledge transfer, training and staffing to get to a level of sufficient redundancy.

    All across the country there are systems where only one person knows how to debug a critical box or only one person can correctly load a new security protocol. A lot of these also assume physical access to locations that may not be possible.

    The problem is that so many senior managers have spent their entire careers above the level of implementation and have no concept of how things work. Trump is a prime example.

    • emptywheel says:

      Yeah, as the stay-at-home order goes into place here, I’m interested in the (largely non-public) discussions of what manufacturers consider essential, for some of the same kinds of reasons. When this is all over we need to have a real conversation about redundancy in things that could easily be redundant.

      • Ruthie says:

        My husband has worked in and around the commercial insurance industry for nearly 30 years. He predicts that insurers will want to see plans regarding supply chain disruption and personnel disruption, just to name the most obvious, before insuring businesses going forward.

        Maybe this is obvious, and others may have made similar comments – we will forever separate time into before Covid-19 and after. Many things will change, hopefully for the better.

    • Anne says:

      If I remember correctly, in 1998-99 when the Y2K scare hit, there were lots of legacy systems running on COBOL and all the guys who knew how to read COBOL code were retired. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

      • vvv says:

        Yes; I heard of guys brought back out of retirement making pretty big money to deal with those issues.

      • BobCon says:

        The Y2K fix has a really unfair reputation. It was a real problem that would have caused havoc, but people used the advanced warning to diagnose, plan and implement. And it worked.

        There were clear challenges, such as shortages of coders in old languages, but there were enough forward thinkers who could still make plans without knowing the full scope of the problem first.

        Clinton and Gore, to their credit, took the advice of experts ahead of time and supported the massive job of getting the federal government’s systems ready, as did countless people in the private sector.

        And now that kind of work is seen as a hoax by the worst kinds of people, the types who oppose all kinds of preparation.

        • Justlp says:

          I worked on Y2K issues for 2 years before it came, and you’re right, it could have been bad if that preparation hadn’t happened. It was not too difficult, though. Searching for any date-related code & making the required change. Just a huge universe of code to go through. It went well because it was a limited, well-defined problem that thousands of people worked on preparing for for years. I’ll never forget working at my office in SF over New Year’s Eve night, just in case…

    • timbo says:

      Yes, I chatted with a relative today on the phone. He repairs controller boards for legacy machines. He’s got some orders to do some work on some boards that he has no idea what they are used for but those boards are for hardware that is at least 15 years old. He has a letter from the manufacturer of those original boards (or at least the entity that bought the original manufacturer perhaps) saying his work is essential. My relative owns the original production line systems that built those boards now so, basically, he’s the only source that has access to original equipment to work with those boards and he has the last part stocks for those boards that are all in one place, etc. I told him to go into work if he could as we have no idea what those legacy controller boards are being used for per se. I’m going to chat with him again tomorrow after reading this article and discussion here in this thread to see if he’s going to or not. It’s not a lot of money for him but it’s also not clear how important the work is unless his client (the big corporation) tells him specifics… which they don’t.

      Thanks for everybody here who reminded me again how interconnected modern technology has made this. Perhaps some of those controller boards are for old legacy ATC systems… hadn’t thought of that use for them until now…

    • P J Evans says:

      I worked at a gas-distribution company, and I have no idea what they’re doing about this. They have a lot fewer people now with thirty or forty years of experience. (The can, however, call retired people back if they have to.)

      • harpie says:

        My spouse, who is a PE with expertise in water distribution systems just received an e-mail from the state licensing board. It seems like they want to make sure they can contact every person in the state that holds a professional licence.

    • emptywheel says:

      Not OT at all. Air traffic is just the most obvious way a few shutdowns can bring down a system. The grid and IT are areas where things would become dire if a similar pattern emerged.

      • ducktree says:

        Yes, just as the NTSB investigates gas line explosions, etc. Transportation, commerce and for strategical reasons – communication workers (CWA).

        Need directory assistance, who ya gonna call, bug busters!

        [Sorry ~ cabin fever is rearing up . . . time for a nice walk outdoors. As soon as I punch out from my virtual duty desk at 4:15 PDT.]

  4. ducktree says:

    On January 17, I booked April round trip flights from Long Beach to SEATAC, then on to San Juan Island from Boeing Field in King County on a 10-seat puddle jumper. Two weeks ago Kenmore Air notified customers that they were suspending all service until at least April 30 (my intended return date), though they were offering private charter flights (too rich for the pockabook).

    So after cancelling the Southwest Airlines leg, I was shortly thereafter notified by them that the January 18, 2021 expiration date on my nonrefundable tickets was extended to June 30, 2021. It appears they see what’s coming. I remain hopeful that I’ll be redeeming the credits way before then!

    OT: yesterday when attempting to e-file opposition documents in Federal court using the NextGen ECF system, the password for my attorney was suddenly no longer valid and had been reset by the Pacer authorities. It had worked fine last week. Then when I tried to log in to my employer’s time clock to punch out for the day (I’m sheltering at home), that password had also been deactivated. My tinfoil chapeau sensed a sudden heightened security protocol running through the internet; it’s a perfect time for bad actors to move in.

  5. Mosey says:

    El presidente has, very successfully it seems, pivoted the crisis back to himself. That we are taking his idea seriously and writing, tweeting, and talking about yet another insane idea is, of course, a victory for his ego and his maga base. Can we stop normalizing his crazy and stop covering this shit? There is no way in hell he is going to re open businesses. Not with the exponentially rising number of positive tests and deaths. Soon we will be losing many doctors and nurses either to death or quarantine. Do you honestly think the toddler with a twitter account has any serious plans to go out of his way to sicken (or worse) more innocent Americans by forcing us all out of isolation and back to the factory? I don’t. But I do think he wanted to change to topic away from his shortcomings with the crisis. And that he has done. Please don’t take the bait…in five minutes he will come up with a new crazy and the media will chase that. I thought empty wheel was above this?

    • harpie says:

      Do you honestly think the toddler with a twitter account has any serious plans to go out of his way to sicken (or worse) more innocent Americans by forcing us all out of isolation and back to the factory?

      Of course not.
      But I wouldn’t put it passed the people who are pulling his strings.

  6. harpie says:

    10 days ago, bmaz retweeted Chris Geidner:
    10:02 AM · Mar 14, 2020

    Such a smart piece, by @akapczynski & @gregggonsalves, detailing at length the causes, effects, and possible solutions coming out of #COVID19. It’s an in-depth look at so much of what I’ve been talking about: our failure to recognize our shared vulnerability. [link]

    Amy Kapczynski @akapczynski Professor of Law, Yale Law School. Blogging at @LPEBlog, and faculty director at @YaleGHJP and @Yale_CRIT
    Gregg Gonsalves @gregggonsalves I work @Yale focusing on operations research/epidemiology for infectious disease. In the real world: been an AIDS activist for ~30 yrs. Asst Prof YSPH.

    Links to:

    Alone Against the Virus Decades of neoliberal austerity will make it harder to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, more than ever, we must rebuild our social safety net and forge a New Deal for public health.
    March 13, 2020

    I just didn’t want that to get lost in the tsunami.

    • bmaz says:

      For the record, Kapczynski and Gonsalves are both great. That is in general, but absolutely invaluable on these issues.

  7. bmaz says:

    Gonna add this in, there are regional control facilities. Not necessarily even in towers, that are part of the FAA “redundancy”. It is almost certain that is what the “Long Island facility” noted in the post is. Here, our regional control is Albuquerque center. It controls Arizona, New Mexico, parts of western Texas, Eastern California, and Colorado. If that thing goes dark, it is not just a problem for commercial aviation, whether passenger or cargo, it is a problem for all aviation, including private.

    It is like the electrical grid, this stuff matters. A lot.

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