'Coronavirus impact on flight bookings is worse than after 9/11'

JetBlue Airways CEO Robin Hayes says the airline is facing a more significant drop in bookings than after 9/11.


JetBlue plane flight
JetBlue plane flight

The US airline industry saw a 30% decline in demand following the 2001 tragedy, says JetBlue Airways CEO Robin Hayes.

With the World Health Organization declaring coronavirus a pandemic on Wednesday, he says similar concerns about flying have led JetBlue’s bookings to decline more than after Sept. 11.

“We're seeing bookings come off to an even greater extent with this, you know, with this scare around the coronavirus and a lot of people also wanting to refund delayed trips as well,” he says. “Not only are the number of new bookings down, but we're seeing a lot of customers want to change their flights.”

The airline industry is facing immediate effects from the spread of coronavirus. Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and United Airlines are all cutting back on the number of domestic and international flights as bookings decline. United says ticket sales have fallen 25%, while Delta reports a 25% to 35% drop in bookings over the past two weeks.

JetBlue decreased 5% of its capacity for April and is reviewing further cuts, Hayes says.

Recent flights haven’t been reaching capacity because of the impact on bookings, and he believes most passengers will notice the empty seats onboard.

“Most of us are not going to die from coronavirus but this is an ongoing threat,” he says. “And you can't exactly tell people there's nothing to worry about when there are people out there contracting, in some cases dying, from coronavirus.”

Hayes says the company is planning for this to continue for a “very significant” amount of time. Though domestic airline travel in China has started to recover, he says it took two years for airlines in the US to bounce back after 9/11.

Without enough passengers, airlines can lose their regular slots at popular airports if they fail to meet minimum flight requirements. To help the US airline industry, the Federal Aviation Administration announced Wednesday it will waive minimum flight requirements through May 31.

“Clearly in an environment where we're seeing devastating impact for bookings, we don't want to be flying around empty planes,” Hayes says. “That's not good for anyone. It's certainly not good for the environment.”

Compared to before the financial crisis, he says US airlines are in a better position with stronger balance sheets and liquidity. Before coronavirus concerns heightened, he says JetBlue saw a strong demand for both business and leisure travel in January and February, thanks to the economy.