Veteran airline bosses reflect on aviation’s future after Covid-19

On September 11 2001, Donald Carty, then chief executive of American Airlines, was at home shaving when a dispatcher at the Dallas base called to say that a flight attendant had reported her aircraft had been hijacked. Mr Carty said he would be in the office in 20 minutes. When the news came that a plane had flown into New York’s World Trade Center, many initially assumed it was a small private aircraft. “I knew in my gut that it wasn’t,” he recalls.

For Rod Eddington, then-chief executive of British Airways, his first thought on news of the 9/11 attacks was of the BA aircraft that were heading to the US without enough fuel to return. The aircraft made for Newfoundland and Nova Scotia instead.

At her Stansted airport base in Essex, Barbara Cassani, head of low-cost airline Go, worried that the US attacks meant that an aircraft, perhaps one of hers, would be heading into London’s Canary Wharf. Having accounted for all of Go’s planes, she set about dealing with the immediate crisis — heightened security and a collapse in passenger confidence in flying.

The three have vivid memories of 9/11 and the trauma that followed, which inform their view of the Covid-19 crisis gripping the airline industry now and their assessment of what comes next.

Donald Carty, chief executive of American Airlines in September 2001 Donald Carty, chief executive of American Airlines in September 2001 © Getty Images

Mr Carty, who ran American from 1998 to 2003, is still involved in the airline business as a director of Hawaiian Airlines and chairman of Canadian carrier Porter Airlines. Sir Rod, who headed BA from 2000 to 2005 and was knighted for his services to aviation, is back in his native Australia where he chairs Infrastructure Partnerships Australia and Lion, a food and drinks company. Ms Cassani founded Go, led a buyout from BA, its original owner, a few months before 9/11 and left when the airline was acquired by easyJet the following year. She then launched London’s bid to win the 2012 Olympics and is now back in the US, where she was born.

The former chief executives agree on three points: crises are part of running an airline, the current one is the modern industry’s most severe — worse than 9/11 — and the recovery will be long and uneven. Some flyers, particularly business travellers, will be reassessing how much flying they need to do in future.

Mr Carty’s then-airline was most directly affected by the 2001 attacks. An American Airlines plane that had taken off from Boston was the first to crash into the World Trade Center, followed by a United Airlines aircraft. An American plane hit the Pentagon on the same day. A fourth airline, a United flight from Newark, crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers tackled the hijackers.

Just two months later, on November 12 2001, Mr Carty recalls that he had to deal with the trauma of an American Airlines Airbus A300 crashing after take-off from John F Kennedy International airport, killing all 260 on board and five people on the ground. The next month, Richard Reid, the UK-born “shoe bomber”, was subdued while trying to cause an explosion on an American flight from Paris to Miami.

After the 9/11 attacks, passengers faced heightened security measures After the 9/11 attacks, passengers faced heightened security measures © Tim Boyle/Getty

The three former airlines bosses see several common features of the 9/11 crisis and the current one, beginning with passengers’ fear of flying. “The terrorists had used commercial aeroplanes as weapons of choice,” Sir Rod says. That had a huge impact on passenger confidence.

“There were some things that happened straight away: knives and forks off the plane, replaced by plastic knives and forks. Cockpit doors reinforced,” Sir Rod recalls. Pilots now had to stay inside the cockpit. In the old days, if there was trouble on the aircraft, “the captain would put on his cap and with his four bars on his shoulder would come and sort things out”. No more.

The industry in late 2001 experienced many of the ills it is seeing now. Airlines bled cash. Their survival was threatened. Government stepped in with financial support, as they are doing today. But, with new security in place, passenger confidence returned. The number of passengers who flew worldwide in 2002 was 1.63bn, only slightly down from 1.66bn the year before, according to World Bank figures.

The three see the coronavirus passenger confidence crisis lasting far longer. Ms Cassani says that the 9/11-related terrorism came to be seen as a US-specific issue. “The challenge of the Covid crisis is it’s not one country, it’s everywhere.” And while security measures helped calm passengers after 9/11, only a vaccine or reliable antibody tests that assure people they have immunity will fully restore people’s willingness to travel. “Until then, it’s very, very tricky,” she says.

Sir Rod predicts the Covid-19 crisis will result in a fall in connecting flights, with more people flying point to point. Nervous passengers will want to spend as little time in the air and in transit as they can. “They’re going to want to go from city A to city B, nonstop.” This will mark the end of large planes, such as the Boeing 747 and the Airbus A380. “They’re going to be parked up against the fence,” he says.

Mr Carty believes leisure flying will eventually return. “I think there’s an insatiable demand for people to travel,” he says. “I think people will be anxious for a while. But if we get a vaccine, people will be back to normal in a year.”

In the meantime, Sir Rod thinks life will be hard for low-cost carriers, which are not getting the government money being doled out to national champions such as Lufthansa and Air France-KLM. But Ms Cassani believes the cut-price airlines have two advantages. The first is that their lower cost base means they can drop fares quickly. They can also fly on new routes wherever they see a gap. A few weeks after 9/11, Go started a London-Newcastle service, undercutting the fare of BA, its former employer.

Capital International airport in Beijing. The coronavirus will dramatically change airports Capital International airport in Beijing. The coronavirus will dramatically change airports © Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

The low-cost airlines’ second advantage is that the flights are relatively short. The longer passengers are on a plane, the greater their exposure to infection. People will worry about long transcontinental or cross-ocean flights “There’s an argument that, if you’re going to take a risk on Covid, you’d rather do it on a flight that’s three hours long,” Ms Cassani says.

Does she think young travellers, less at risk of dying from Covid-19, will be the first to return to short-haul flights? “Yes, absolutely,” she says. The prices are lower and staying relatively close to home will look attractive to flyers. For many European youngsters, trips to Bali, Australia and New Zealand will probably be off-limits for now. A holiday in Ibiza might be appealing, she says.

But Mr Carty believes the coronavirus crisis may permanently reduce business travel. “The whole working-from-home thing has educated global business. You don’t have to travel to get your work done.”

Business people will still need some face-to-face contact, he says, but they now realise they need far less. Boards of directors can meet in person two to three times a year. The other board meetings can take place electronically, Mr Carty says. “I think business travel will be seriously affected. I think there’s going to be a serious contraction.”