As the coronavirus threat spreads in the United States, even the jet set is cutting down on flying.
On Wednesday, Boeing announced it will reduce employee travel to “business-essential activities.”
Boeing has one of the largest corporate travel budgets in the country. Business Travel News in 2019 ranked Boeing No. 9 among U.S. companies in company travel spending, ahead of Amazon at No. 12 and one rank below Microsoft at No. 8.
And influential aviation industry player Steve Udvar-Hazy has told his employees at Air Lease Corp., which buys Boeing jets, that if they have to take delivery of an airplane, a few Seattle-based technical staff should handle it without the typical contingent of financial and marketing staff from his Los Angeles headquarters.
In an interview Tuesday on the sidelines of an aviation conference in Austin, Texas, Udvar-Hazy said his instruction to staff is: “If you don’t have to go to Seattle, put it off.”
Airlines, Boeing’s customers, will be among the businesses most heavily and swiftly affected by the virus scare. Corporate travelers whose companies typically pay for the expensive seats at the front of the plane supply most of the profit on any given flight.
Boeing’s statement said that it’s already following all official government guidance and travel advisories for various regions of the world, but that it is now going further.
In addition to restricting company travel, Boeing said it will reschedule some events; reduce face-to-face meetings in favor of virtual meetings; enable telecommuting where possible; and encourage employees to take appropriate health and safety measures.
“These measures are temporary and aimed to prevent the spread of the virus, shorten its impact and ensure the health and safety of our employees as well as the general public,” Boeing said. “We will continue to adapt our approach as needed as the situation evolves and additional government guidance is issued.”
Udvar-Hazy, in the interview, said airlines will trim their capacity by reducing flights and rein in costs during this steep downturn. “The industry will adjust,” he said.
While the U.S. airlines are in better shape than most to weather the storm, he said, “if there’s no recovery by May or June, it could have a devastating effect on the airlines this year.”
On Wednesday, United Airlines announced it will reduce its international schedule by 20% and its domestic schedule by 10% in April, with similar reductions likely in May. The schedule changes go public March 7.
United has also instituted a hiring freeze and postponed salary increases for all non-union staff. And it’s inviting employees to volunteer for unpaid leave or a reduced schedule.
The Lufthansa Group, which includes SWISS and Austrian Airlines as well as German carrier Lufthansa, said it will cut as much as a quarter of its short- and medium-haul flights in the coming weeks. On its long-haul international services, it will ground 23 of its larger aircraft. Lufthansa may also reduce working hours, the company said in a statement.
In the United Kingdom, ailing carrier Flybe, which was seeking bankruptcy protection before the virus hit travel demand, ceased operations Wednesday.
A Congressional hearing in Washington, D.C. Wednesday discussed the role of the aviation industry in mitigating the ongoing novel coronavirus outbreak.
U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell pressed officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Transportation for more information and guidance as to what protocols should be in place at airports and airlines.
“We need to understand … what we should be doing to create the best and most positive environment for air transportation to continue,” Cantwell said.‘