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As Coronavirus Spreads, U.S. Travel Providers Are Cutting Back Their Services. Here’s How That’s Impacting Transportation Workers

18 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Travel to — and throughout — the United States has rapidly dropped in recent days, driven by concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus. On March 11, President Donald Trump announced a month-long ban on most non-U.S. citizens traveling from Europe in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus — and on March 14 said the ban will extend to the United Kingdom and Ireland — although the move has been criticized as ineffective at stopping a virus that is already in the U.S.

Trump’s orders follow a widely-reported trend of people across and the U.S. (and across the world) canceling or curtailing travel plans in an attempt to limit their risk of contracting COVID-19. This practice of self-isolation, known as social distancing, has already had an impact on many major forms of mass transportation across the U.S. and internationally; here’s how’s how the travel industry is responding — across flights, trains, cruise ships and more — and what it means for the industry’s workforce.

How is the airline industry affected by coronavirus?

The airline industry has already been heavily impacted. According to OAG, a global travel data provider, the number of scheduled flights is globally down by 10% compared to the second week of March in 2019.

Many U.S. and European companies have been hit particularly hard by President Trump’s travel ban on non-U.S. citizens who have visited Europe’s Schengen Area, a collection of 26 countries that do not restrict travel amongst each other including Italy, Spain and France. Per OAG, the ban will affect passengers arriving on nearly 7,000 flights over the next month.

A spokesperson for Airlines for America, a trade association and lobbying group that represents major U.S. airlines, told TIME in a statement on March 13 that, “We respect President Trump’s decision to take action to prevent the spread of the virus as our top priority is – and always will be – the safety and well-being of all passengers and crew. However, the government-imposed travel restrictions have triggered rapid and severe damage to the airline industry.”

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U.S. airlines directly employ 750,000 workers; the industry as a whole supports 10 million jobs. “The economic impact on U.S. airlines, their employees, travelers and the shipping public is staggering,” the spokesperson continues. New flight bookings for the next 90 days are down by 65-75%.

The flight attendant’s union the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA) told TIME on March 13 that they’ve seen a general reduction in the availability of flight hours but have not yet been made aware of any involuntary furloughs. However, flight attendants are generally paid by the hour, and that drop could be costly.

Sara Nelson, the International President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA — which represents 50,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines — explains to TIME that 80% of flight attendants in the industry are organized, and that their contracts provide pay protections that help mitigate schedule loss. However, most flight attendants work more hours than such pay protections account for, and depend on the income from those extra hours.

Nelson also told TIME that the AFA-CWA has worked with airlines to secure contractual pay protection in the current months’ schedule and has worked with management of multiple airlines to determine how much voluntary, unpaid leave they’ll offer. Nelson says that flight attendants will still have their health insurance while on leave, “which is critically important as we’re facing this pandemic.” Flight attendants on leave will also maintain their seniority.

Departure lounge at Ruzyne
Departure lounge at Ruzyne - Vaclav Havel Airport, Prague, Czech Republic.aviation-images.com/Universal Images Group—Getty Images

The Air Line Pilots Association, a union that represents over 63,000 pilots, tweeted on March 11, “ALPA’s Air Safety Organization is closely monitoring the 2019 novel #coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak and will continue to meet regularly and provide timely information to our pilot groups as the situation progresses.”

Delta Airlines

The airline most affected by the the U.S.-Schengen area travel ban will be Delta Airlines, which was scheduled to fly 17% of flights affected by Trump’s ban, per OAG. On March 13, Delta CEO Ed Bastian said in a memo to all Delta employees world-wide that the company would reduce an unprecedented 40% of its overall capacity over the next few months — parking up to 300 aircrafts. This will be the largest reduction in the company’s history, including 9/11.

On March 14, the airline announced it would suspend multiple routes to South America, Europe and Asia and would continue to operate one flight daily between Atlanta and Amsterdam, Atlanta and Paris and Atlanta and London. It will operate one flight daily between New York and London.

In his March 13 memo Bastian also said Delta would immediately offer voluntary short-term unpaid leave and institute a company-wide hiring freeze. It also will reportedly reduce its use of consultants and contractors.

“Through this unprecedented and evolving business environment in the COVID-19 pandemic, Delta’s values remain stronger than ever. This includes taking care of our people and letting our values lead. To that end, we are offering employees the voluntary option to take a 30, 60 or 90-day unpaid leave while retaining full benefits and enhanced travel privileges including confirmed flights,” a Delta spokesperson told TIME on March 14.

The AFA-CWA’s Nelson told TIME on March 13 that Delta is the only major airline whose flight attendants are not unionized, and she’s concerned what this could mean for workers.

United Airlines

United Airlines is the second-most affected by the ban; it was scheduled to operate 14% of affected flights, per OAG. The airline was also one of the first to take drastic action because of the spread of the virus. On March 4, United announced it would reportedly offer voluntary, unpaid leave for U.S. based employees, would institute a hiring freeze and postpone salary increases.

On March 10, United announced that it would cut 20 percent of its flights indefinitely until demand increases, according to The Washington Post. Its CEO and president will also reportedly forgo their base salaries through June. United President Scott Kirby said that airline’s domestic net books are down 70% as of Tuesday, per ABC News.

The airline will continue to fly its regular schedule from Europe to the U.S. through March 20 to assist customers departing Europe, and afterwards will cut back on its routes while still flying daily to Dublin, Zurich, Brussels, Paris, Amsterdam and multiple flights to Frankfurt, Munich and London.

“We are reviewing our flight and crew schedules to comply with the administration’s travel restrictions,” United told TIME in a statement sent on March 12. “As always, we will continue to provide our customers and employees with the very latest information as it develops.”

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American Airlines

American Airlines is the fourth most affected by the U.S.-Schengen ban, per OAG, and announced on March 12 that it would suspend multiple routes to Europe and South America through May After the President announced that the European travel ban would expand to include the United Kingdom and Ireland, American Airlines announced that the airline would reduce its international capacity by 75% from March 16 to May 6. It also announced route suspensions to popular locations like London, New York, Sydney, and Tokyo; all flights to Asia and Australia are suspended, as are most flights to Europe and many to South America.

In response to these suspensions, Lori Bassani, the national president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), which represents 28,000 flight attendants at American Airlines, said in a statement on Sunday that American has offered short-term leave options for flight attendants and the union was working to receive longer-term leave options. She added that “On the health front, we have demanded all protective measures for our Flight Attendants be provided on every flight—focused first on international flights but now on flights everywhere. We have also addressed internal protocols and the sick policy for crew members who may be exposed and/or quarantined.”

When asked for comment, American Airlines referred TIME to a letter sent to all its team members on March 12, which announced that the company would suspend all hiring and leadership moves, postpone pay increases, and offer extended unpaid, voluntary leaves of absence. The letter also said that American Airlines is extending a two-week paid sick policy for all team members who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or are quarantined.

Many other U.S. and European airline companies have been hurt by the threat of COVID-19. The German company Lufthansa is the third most affected by the U.S.-Schengen Area travel ban, for example. But even before Trump’s announcement, the airline had already canceled 23,000 flights between March 29 and April 24.

“Our primary goal is to keep as many of our employees on board as possible,” a Lufthansa spokesperson told TIME in an emailed statement. “The extremely urgent decisions on reduced working hours are an important milestone in this regard… The Lufthansa Group has launched an extensive savings program. This includes an immediate hiring freeze, as well as cost reductions in personnel, material and project costs. We are using all available means to secure our liquidity.”

On March 16, Norwegian Air also announced it would suspend over 85% of its flights and implement temporary layoffs of up to 90% of their employees. Norwegian did not immediately respond to TIME’s request for comment.

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How is the rail industry affected?

On March 16, Amtrak announced its Northeast Corridor — which runs between Boston and Virginia — would operate 40% of its typical weekday schedule. The Keystone Service in Pennsylvania will be suspended as of March 18 and all Pennsylvania trains are suspended as of March 19.

The Amtrak Hartford Line, the Valley Flyer line, the New York State Service and the Amtrak Downeaster line will be operating on a reduced schedule starting March 17. The Cascades service and the Winter Park Express lines have canceled their service.

John Feltz, director of the Transport Workers Union Train Division, told TIME on March 13 there’s a possibility that onboard service workers on Amtrak he represents — such as cafe car workers — may have to prepare for a “furlough or a layoff situation.” He says the the union is “still trying to work that out with Amtrak right now” and “they are cooperating and they are working hand-in-hand.”

Feltz says that, if furloughed, workers would be able to collect unemployment under the Railroad Retirement Board, but their health insurance would be only last three months from their time they first left work.

Amtrak told TIME on March 13 that they are “working closely with the unions right now as we adjust our schedules as a result of reduced demand that has cut hundreds of millions of dollars from our revenue estimates.”

“We will soon be rolling out a voluntary unpaid leave program where non-essential employees can volunteer to take unpaid leave in order to contribute to reducing our expenses,” the spokesperson continued. She added they’ve taken other cost cutting measures “as we work hard to offset the revenue loss while minimizing the impact on our employees.” These measures include: ending all non-safety critical hiring; cutting discretionary travel, cutting professional fees, cutting consultant spending, cutting advertising spending, and cutting deferred non-priority capital projects.

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Anthony Simon, general chairman of the transportation division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation workers, who represents workers on the Long Island Railroad, writes TIME in an email that they have “been in constant contact with management and local officials. We have the full support of our international Union as well, and our work is secure moving forward as decisions and conditions are constantly changing.”

“Our first priority is for everyone’s safety and to prepare for whatever is necessary to restore normal. While there have been no threats to cut service as of yet, we will be prepared for whatever comes our way,” he writes.

How is the cruise industry affected?

Royal Caribbean Symphony of the Seas Cruise ship is seen docked at Port Miami after returning from an Eastern Caribbean cruise as the world deals with the coronavirus outbreak on March 14, 2020 in Miami, Florida.Joe Raedle—Getty Images

The spread of COVID-19 has been devastating for the cruise industry. In a tweet on March 13, President Donald Trump announced that four major cruise lines — Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, and MSC — have agreed to not sail from U.S. ports for thirty days. This comes after ports around the world have begun to temporarily ban cruise ship arrivals out of fear about the spread of coronavirus.

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Cruise Lines International Association, a trade organization that includes over 50 cruise lines, announced on March 13 that all CLIA ocean-going cruise lines will be temporarily suspending cruise ship operations from U.S. ports of call for 30 days.

Multiple cruise ships have suffered high profile outbreaks of the virus. The Diamond Princess was quarantined for weeks off the coast of Japan and at least 700 people on board ended up contracting coronavirus. Another cruise ship, the Grand Princess, was prevented from docking off the coast of California for days out concerns about spreading the virus, and 21 people on board ended up testing positive by the time they disembarked in Oakland on March 9.

Princess Cruises

On March 12, Princess Cruises — which is owned by Carnival Corp. — announced it was suspending all its global operations through early May, meaning 18 ships will cancel trips that were scheduled to begin between March 12 and May 10.

When asked what would happen to the employees scheduled to work these voyages, a spokesperson for Princess Cruises told TIME on March 12, “Shoreside employees may temporarily take on new duties to support this change and the refund process. Most shipboard teammates will return home until service resumes in 60 days.”

“Our teammates are our Princess family and we are committed to the care of our team. This is an unprecedented action in the history of our company, so we do not know how everything will play out. We ask for understanding as we work through the specifics regarding compensation and other details,” the spokesperson continued.

On March 13, Carnival Corp. announced four more cruise lines would suspend their activity for a month: Carnival Cruise Line, Cunard North America, Holland America Line and Seabourn. Carnival Corp. did not immediately respond to TIME’s request for comment about what would happen to its workers.

Disney Cruises

On March 13, Disney Cruise Lines announced that it would suspend all new departures of Disney cruise ships beginning March 14 through the end of the month. “While we know this decision may be disappointing, the health and wellbeing of our guests is of the greatest importance,” Disney Cruise Line said in a statement.

“We are equally committed to the wellbeing of our incredible crew members who live and work aboard our ships and on Castaway Cay. During the suspended operations, Disney Cruise Line will continue to compensate our Crew Members and shoreside Cast Members,” the statement continued.

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Viking Cruises

Viking Cruises also announced that it would suspend all ocean and river cruises until May 1.

Viking directed TIME’s request for comment to a message sent to all employees on March 11: “Viking’s guests and our crew always come first; we stand by you. The Company is financially strong, and we have experience in handling adversity. We have no plans to reduce our crew levels as they currently are and will use the next weeks to improve our procedures to handle future challenges presented with the new coronavirus.”

How is the shipping and delivery industry affected?

In late February, Shippers Transport Express alerted 145 drivers who work at the port of Los Angeles that they would be reducing hours beginning on Feb. 28, because of the decreased volumes of cargo moving through the port.

Ron Herrera, the director of the Teamsters Union Port Division of the Western Region, told TIME on March 13 that roughly 30% of those drivers have been allowed to keep driving. He says the decreased hours are driven by the low volume of cargo coming from Asia. ABC 7 reports that Phillip Sanfield, spokesperson for the Port of LA, said that they saw a roughly 25% decline in volume in February 2020 compared to February 2019.

A spokesperson for Shippers Transport Express told TIME in an email on March 13, “We have in good faith worked to alert our workers to the reduced volume situation facing our industry as a result of the [coronavirus].”

“We’ve informed [drivers] that we will be providing hours as volume arrives and we have more work. Hopefully, volume returns to normal shortly and we will have volume and hours for all our drivers. This will be done on a seniority basis, as hours materialize, which is the Teamster’s process,” he continued.

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One of those workers is 35-year-old Wendy Cruz, who has driven for Shippers Transport Express for four years. She told TIME on March 13 that she’s “definitely” worried about job security going forward. “We don’t know what’s going to happen,” she explains. “And I recently just purchased a home.”

Herrera told TIME on March 13 that the Teamsters Union anticipates more layoffs because of low manufacturing rates in China. “I don’t think we’ve seen the bottom of this yet,” he says. As NBC News reports, some economists say the coronavirus could have a bigger effect on U.S.-China trade than the Trump-era trade war did.

How is the ride-sharing industry affected?

Uber and Lyft have also taken a hit from the spread of COVID-19.

Uber has announced that if any driver or delivery person contracts coronavirus or is asked to self-isolate the company will provide financial assistance for up to 14 days. Uber has also announced that it’s working to provide drivers with disinfectants to help clean their cars. Similarly, Lyft has announced that it plans to deliver cleaning supplies to its drivers and will “provide funds to drivers” with COVID-19 or in quarantine “based on the rides they provided on the Lyft platform over the last four weeks.”

But many U.S.-based Uber and Lyft drivers have expressed frustration that their companies have no done enough to protect them from the virus or from severe economic losses.

Steve Gregg, who has been driving for Uber and Lyft in California’s Bay Area for a little over three years, told TIME on March 13 that he’s “not in a position” where he can stop driving. Even though he says his fear over the coronavirus has caused him to have mild panic attacks, he’s had to keep driving because he depends on the income to support his children. Gregg adds that the two-weeks compensation he would receive if he got sick would be “a little too late.”

Yash — an Uber and Lyft driver whose full name TIME is withholding to protect his job — says his income went down last week by 30%. He adds that as his income has gone down, his costs have gone up; he now takes his car to get washed every day.

“We are at the front line of this epidemic. On a daily basis we deal with 20-30 people,” he says. He says he’s been suffering from insomnia since the crisis began, but he can’t stop driving because he can’t afford to.

When asked for comment on March 12 about the impact the spread of the virus has had on drivers, Uber directed TIME to a speech the company’s CEO Dara Khosrowshahi gave at Morgan Stanley last week, where he said, “As far as the impact to date, first of all, we are completely focused on the operational side of the business, making sure that our riders are safe, our drivers are safe, they understand what are best practices to make sure you stay safe. Our employees are taken care of. Our partners are taken care of.”

When asked for comment on March 12 about the virus’ impact on drivers, a Lyft spokesperson told TIME in a statement, “We are monitoring the coronavirus situation closely, and taking action based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. Our focus is on keeping our riders, drivers and team members safe. We have an internal task force dedicated solely to this issue, and are prepared to take action as needed.”

Responding to the concerns raised by the drivers TIME spoke with, a spokesperson for Uber said in a March 14 in a statement, “The mounting fear and uncertainty caused by the coronavirus is being felt by everyone around the world. We know it’s especially concerning for people who drive and deliver with Uber. In these difficult times, their well-being is at the top of our minds, and we have a dedicated team working around the clock to support them the very best we can.”

Lyft did not return a March 13 request for comment on the drivers’ comments.

Please send any tips, leads, and stories to virus@time.com.

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Write to Madeleine Carlisle at madeleine.carlisle@time.com