The Coronavirus Outbreak

By Niraj Chokshi

The 30-day ban on most travelers from the Continent because of the coronavirus fueled new concern for the industry. Norwegian is temporarily laying off half its staff.

U.S. airline stocks tumbled in response to President Trump’s 30-day ban on most passenger travel from continental Europe.
U.S. airline stocks tumbled in response to President Trump’s 30-day ban on most passenger travel from continental Europe.Credit...Landon Speers for The New York Times
Niraj Chokshi

Airline stocks tumbled on Thursday after President Trump prohibited most travelers from 26 European countries from visiting the United States for 30 days.

United Airlines and Delta Air Lines were down by more than 10 percent at 1 p.m. and American Airlines was down about 5 percent.

Already reeling from a steep decline in bookings because of the coronavirus outbreak, the airlines now stand to lose millions of dollars in revenue from a halt to trans-Atlantic flights, which account for a big chunk of their international business.

“Suspending travel on such a broad scale will create negative consequences across the economy,” said Alexandre de Juniac, the chief executive of the International Air Transport Association, an industry group. “Governments must recognize this and be ready to support” the industry.

According to the association, about 200,000 flights carried passengers between the United States and 26 countries targeted in Mr. Trump’s order last year, averaging about 550 flights carrying 125,000 travelers per day.

Over the next four weeks, the ban would affect more than 6,700 flights, in each direction, according to an analysis by OAG, an aviation data provider.

Delta is the airline most hurt by the ban, operating 17 percent of affected flights, according to OAG. United is next, with 14 percent, followed by Lufthansa, with 13 percent. American ranked fourth, operating about 8 percent of affected flights.

Confusion reigned after Mr. Trump’s announcement, with frantic travelers struggling to understand the consequences of the ban and airlines racing to adjust operations on little notice ahead of its implementation on Friday night.

“This action will hit U.S. airlines, their employees, travelers and the shipping public extremely hard,” said Nicholas Calio, president of Airlines for America, an industry group. “However, we respect the need to take this unprecedented action and appreciate the administration’s commitment to facilitate travel and trade.”

But others in the industry were more critical. Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, the union representing flight attendants at 20 airlines, including United, said in an interview that the airline industry was “pretty blindsided” by Mr. Trump’s announcement.

“It created total pandemonium,” Ms. Nelson said. “Airline employees had no idea what this meant and for some it was completely disrupting their lives. They weren’t even sure if they were going to have a job in the next 24 hours or get home.”

Among flight attendants, there is widespread fear about job losses, she added. “The trajectory that this is on right now is beyond job loss, it’s about whether or not the industry can actually operate,” Ms. Nelson said. “You can’t operate a flight when no one wants to be on it.”

Even before the ban, investors were reassessing the financial prospects of airlines, several of which sought bankruptcy protection in the last two decades.

“The airlines are in cash preservation mode, and we fully expect to see credit facilities extended and increased in the next week,” Helane Becker, an airline analyst with Cowen, wrote in a research note on Thursday. “We previously stated U.S. airline bankruptcies were unlikely and in the near-term that still remains the case BUT if bookings do not improve in the next three months things could deteriorate quickly.”

United borrowed $2 billion this week and Delta raised $1 billion last week. American raised $500 million two weeks ago.

Delta said on Wednesday night that it would waive change fees for all customers traveling to, from or through Europe and the United Kingdom through May. American Airlines, which operates 15 daily flights from the parts of Europe affected by the ban, said that it was “committed to taking care of any affected customers by assisting them with rebooking" and that it was reaching out to those affected.

Travel and tourism between the United States and Europe, including areas not covered by the ban, is a business totaling roughly $130 billion annually, according to U.S. government data.

Trans-Atlantic flights accounted for about 17 percent of United’s 2019 passenger revenues, or $7.3 billion. For Delta, the share was 15 percent, or $6.3 billion, and for American it was 11 percent, or $4.6 billion.

After the ban was announced, Norwegian Air said it would temporarily lay off half of its staff and ground 40 percent of its long-haul flights and 25 percent of shorter flights.

“This is an unprecedented situation and our main priority continues to be the care and safety of our customers and colleagues,” Jacob Schram, the company’s chief executive, said in a statement. “The new restrictions imposed further pressure on an already difficult situation. We urge international governments to act now to ensure that the aviation industry can protect jobs and continue to be a vital part of the global economic recovery.”

Last week, an international airline group estimated that the virus could wipe out as much as $113 billion in airline revenue worldwide, a forecast made before Mr. Trump’s travel restrictions on Europeans and other limits by countries including Israel, Kuwait and Spain.

“Airlines will need emergency measures to get through this crisis,” Mr. de Juniac said, calling on governments around the world to consider extending credit to airlines or reducing taxes and other costs.

In addition to Mr. Trump’s travel ban affecting the 26 European countries that make up the Schengen Area, the State Department warned Americans that they should reconsider all international travel, the most severe caution it can offer short of “do not travel.”

At an investor conference on Tuesday, the chief executives of Delta, United and American said that years of streamlining operations had prepared them to weather the effects of a crisis like the coronavirus outbreak.

United’s president, Scott Kirby, said that the company’s net bookings to Europe were already down 100 percent in recent days, about half of that coming from cancellations. The airline, he said, was preparing for its worst-case scenario — a sustained decline in revenue for the rest of the year — even though it didn’t expect that to happen.

“The financial impact of our dire scenario is worse than the post-9/11 decline in demand,” he said. “We, of course, hope that it will be better, but we’re not willing to count on that.”

Natalie Kitroeff contributed reporting.

  • Updated March 10, 2020

    • What is a coronavirus?
      It is a novel virus named for the crownlike spikes that protrude from its surface. The coronavirus can infect both animals and people and can cause a range of respiratory illnesses from the common cold to lung lesions and pneumonia.
    • How contagious is the virus?
      It seems to spread very easily from person to person, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can travel through the air, enveloped in tiny respiratory droplets that are produced when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes.
    • Where has the virus spread?
      The virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, has sickened more than 127,800 in at least 111 countries and more than 4,700 have died. The spread has slowed in China but is gaining speed in Europe and the United States. World Health Organization officials said the outbreak qualifies as a pandemic.
    • What symptoms should I look out for?
      Symptoms, which can take between two to 14 days to appear, include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Milder cases may resemble the flu or a bad cold, but people may be able to pass on the virus even before they develop symptoms.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      The C.D.C. has advised against all non-essential travel to South Korea, China, Italy and Iran. And the agency has warned older and at-risk travelers to avoid Japan.The State Department has advised Americans against traveling on cruise ships.
    • How long will it take to develop a treatment or vaccine?
      Several drugs are being tested, and some initial findings are expected soon. A vaccine to stop the spread is still at least a year away.