Thousands of grounded planes. Nearly empty flights. How the coronavirus is affecting US airlines

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Over the next two months, American Airlines expects to fly as little as 20% of its domestic schedule and between 10% and 20% of its international schedule.

WASHINGTON (CNN) — Thousands of grounded planes. Nearly empty flights. Airports that look like ghost towns.

That is the picture of aviation in an era where approximately 200 million Americans are under directives to stay at home and limit their travel due to the coronavirus.

A CNN review of the latest airline-related data gives a clearer picture of how air travel has ground to a halt, a result of isolation measures around the country.

The latest announcement on Friday from American Airlines reflect the trends around the industry: Over the next two months, it expects to fly as little as 20% of its domestic schedule and between 10% and 20% of its international schedule.

Many of those planes have just a handful of passengers. American CEO Doug Parker said his planes are about 15% full. US airlines started the year filling about four of five available seats, but are now, on average, filling just one of every five seats, according to data from Airlines for America, an industry group.

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The sliver of usual traffic that is now trickling through airport security checkpoints show how few people are packing their bags. The Transportation Security Administration on Thursday screened just 8% of the travelers that it did on the equivalent day in 2019 — the first day since the coronavirus pandemic reached the US when that number has dropped below 10%.

As the number of travelers nationwide has dropped, TSA has cut back on the number of checkpoints it operates, particularly at medium- and large-sized airports, according to an aviation official familiar with the matter.

In some cases, the official said, the reductions have been linked to a reduced availability of officers to work. More than 60 TSA officers have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to agency data compiled by CNN. The union representing them said dozens more have needed to stay home due to the possibility of exposure.

The official noted that the drop in traffic means multiple security lanes are not needed and can be consolidated. The closures have also allowed the agency to space out the number of lanes that are operational.

The stark figures underscore why the nation’s passenger and cargo airlines requested a $58 billion federal relief package, divided between grants to pay employees and loans for other expenses. Parker said his airline expects to receive “about $12 billion” of the package.

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An additional $10 billion is for airports, and $3 billion is reserved for the companies whose employees stock and clean aircraft between flights.

Across the industry, airlines have slashed from their schedules. Two operators of regional jet service that work for American, Delta and United Airlines, are closing their doors because the cuts and passenger declines were too deep.

When Delta Air Lines unveiled one round of cuts, CEO Ed Bastian told employees in a memo obtained by CNN that “the speed of the demand falloff is unlike anything we’ve seen.” Days later, the airline made even steeper cuts — and is now flying only 30% of its usual schedule.

United says it is currently operating at only 68% of its schedule. Earlier this month, it cut its international schedule by 95%, then added a few flights back to its roster, adapting to the plight of Americans overseas who were “displaced and still need to get home.”

Southwest is eliminating 1,500 of its 4,000 daily flights.

The schedule cuts have snowballed as the US and other governments rolled out travel restrictions. Some of the latest flight cancellations are linked to quarantine restrictions in Hawaii. The infrastructure around tourism and travel — including conferences, hotels, sightseeing, cruises and restaurants — have cut operations and staff.

Airlines are similarly closing lounges for premium travelers and cutting back on amenities for travelers, such as poured drinks on aircraft. Southwest, for example, is shifting to serve passengers only water in individual cans.

The schedule cuts mean the airlines need to operate far fewer planes. Delta has grounded 600 planes — more than half its fleet. American says its grounded jets are congregating at airfields in Pittsburgh, Tulsa, Roswell, New Mexico, and Mobile, Alabama.

Airlines for America says about 1,200 planes in the US fleet of 6,215 have been grounded due to the coronavirus outbreak — not including planes like the Boeing 737 MAX that were grounded a year ago, or are awaiting delivery.

Airlines rarely ground planes because it not only means no revenue, but losses. Planes in short-term storage require regular maintenance to remain ready to return into service.

Worldwide, nearly a third of the 17,750 passenger jets in operation are parked, according to the aviation data firm Cirium. That number is growing rapidly: It said 1,000 more planes were parked since its update a day earlier.

The airlines also need fewer pilots, flight attendants, and other employees. Hundreds of pilots at American Airlines have accepted early retirements. Delta announced Friday that more than 21,000 employees are taking unpaid leave. The memo to employees, obtained by CNN, described unpaid leave as “the most important way you can help the company over the next few months. We could use more volunteers.”

One bright spot for airlines: The need for cargo shipping has grown. American Airlines recently flew its first cargo-only flight since 1984, laden with medical supplies, mail and packages people ordered from online retailers.

Continued Coronavirus Coverage

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