Covid-19 Batters Aviation: Overreaction?


Today’s cancellation of the big Aero show in Friedrichshafen, Germany, early next month is hardly the first of its ilk and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Hard as it is to accept, aviation provides one of the most powerful vectors ever in the spread of disease and the favor gets returned in the form of canceled flights and travel plans.

And now my plans to attend and cover Aero have fallen victim to the panic. But is it really a panic? Is all this concern completely overblown? I keep seeing posts scroll by on Facebook and Twitter that we’re freaking out about 3500 Covid-19 deaths while seven or eight times that many die of the seasonal flu—or more accurately, complications from flu.

The Aero cancellation is a contained example of two kinds of contagion—the disease itself and fears about the disease, rational or not. I was sitting down this morning to write a story from a release Messe Friedrichshafen had published earlier in the week saying the show was on, but that the staff would be doing repetitive disinfecting and cleaning of oft-touched surfaces in the buildings. I have zero data to decide if this is an effective strategy, but it strikes me as a prudent, rational thing to do absent something better.

A few sentences into that story and in comes another announcement postponing if not canceling the whole deal. Embedded in that release was evidence of the second kind of contagion: Exhibitors and attendees were signaling no show and it doesn’t take much of that to make an exposition untenable. So the Messe did the right thing by canceling.

Of the people pulling out, I can imagine several rationales. One is the fear of contracting the virus in the first place, although the current probability of that is exceedingly small. Then there’s worry about getting there and not being able to get back because of travel restrictions not seen at the time of departure. Not such a small probability. There’s a mind gaming factor, too. If an exhibitor is worried about others canceling, including attendees, might they be more likely to do the same? I would be. These shows aren’t cheap to do, the return on the investment can be vaporous and if other people are bailing, why aren’t I?

For me personally, I had it wired. Well, of course I didn’t. There’s simply no reliable data by which to make a risk assessment. The virus has been extant for barely two months and all of the metrics are moving targets. The contagiousness is believed to be high, but is still in flux, as is the mortality rate. As I write this, Johns Hopkins’ Covid-19 dashboard shows 260 known cases in the U.S., compared to 101,583 worldwide.

Percentage wise on the total U.S. population, that’s a digit with seven zeros right of the decimal point and it’s a number so vanishingly small as to be uncrunchable in any risk matrix. But the random nature of virus propagation throws a wild card into the entire calculation and what’s true today might not be true tomorrow when a virus carrier gets into a crowded exhibit hall.

That gets me to airliners as disease vectors, which they assuredly are. The last time I got a lay-me-low cold was on a flight to Aero in 2013. You can hear me croaking as a result of it in this video. And I know I got it from the women next to me who was hacking and sneezing without covering her mouth. Yeah, some people are that inconsiderate. Airliners, of course, have been instrumental in making Covid-19 a near pandemic. It didn’t spread to 90-plus countries on tramp steamers.

The bounce back is coming in the form of a real sting to the travel industry. “The numbers we are losing now are monstrous,” Roger Dow of the U.S. Travel Association told the Los Angeles Times this week. The damage could be as high as $21 billion just for North American airlines alone. Some of this is no doubt due to the fear factors I described above, but not everyone is willing to look at risk numerically when dealing with something that looks like a tennis ball spiked with broccoli that you can’t even see.

My experience notwithstanding, there’s no good data on how or even whether an airline environmental system spreads an infection to passengers. A couple of years ago a research team studied a series of eight flights to get a gauge on inflight transmission of infections. The data was inconclusive on rate of transmission but suggested it’s low probability. The study did suggest occupying a window seat reduces the risk because the researchers observed those passengers had less contact with others in the cabin. On the other hand, the World Health Organization defines contact between passengers as being seated within two rows. Something to think about if you’re considering flying during this outbreak. I still will, at least for the time being.

As mentioned in this story, Sun ‘n Fun is going forward during the first week in April. The show will provide extra cleaning, hand sanitizer and other mitigations, just as Aero planned to do. Were I attending, I’d still bring some additional of my own because the best plans have a way of breaking down when you least expect it.

Covid-19 hasn’t officially crossed the pandemic line yet, but it’s hard to see how it won’t if you look at the outbreak map. The damage to aviation interests may just be getting started if the virus spreads into schools and institutions like the big flight training operations. I won’t be surprised to see more flight curtailments until the virus appears to be on the downswing.

Meanwhile, I don’t consider Covid-19 to be like the flu, for which I get an annual vaccine, or pneumonia for which I did the same. Low risk or not, I take it seriously. We all should.

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  1. Over the past few days, I have been wondering when there would be some kind of announcement by the SNF organizers.

    Now the big question is, with the event just over three weeks away, will their decision hold in the face of what is sure to be continued spread of the virus and more cases and more deaths nationwide. As Paul pointed out about the Aero show, there likewise must be a large number of SNF exhibitors who have developed severe cases of cold feet.

    I still plan to go, as I love aviation too much to stay away (and a trip to Florida from my home in eastern Maine is a winter coping mechanism) — I am no expert in infectious disease or public health, so if they do end up pulling the plug, I wouldn’t question their decision. But it would nonetheless be a crying shame.

  2. Lufthansa is cancelling ~ 50% of its flights and Germany has been grouped into the high risk countries with the Corona virus epidemic. Some countries are implementing travel restrictions and hospitals are putting up signs and cameras to prevent theft of desinfectants and masks.

    Display space is filthy expensive for most if not all aviation exhibitions and as someone who has done the PPU calculations for events, in determining wether or not to display products to a large number of leisurely strolling onlookers, I can see event organizers trapped between a rock and a hard place.

    The internet is the better marketplace anyways, so why not shift the suddenly remaining event- clowning budget into online advertising campaigns. I am glad to have cancelled AERO 2020 during the drive home from AERO 2019.

    Many many of my colleagues had booked rooms in April 2019, planning their stays right down to the restaurants they’re planning to eat out in.

    Those poor souls are kindly advised that the Bodensee area has more to offer than AERO. Its a beautiful area down there and Friedrichshafen is nice without thousands of driving-challenged aviators and aviatrixes fighting for their spot ahead of one.

  3. This hysteria over Covid-19 is striking to watch as it un-folds. Kind of like throwing a “tootsie roll” into an Olympic size public swimming pool. That being said, something really big and substantial is happening here, I just haven’t put my finger on it. This is not going to go away without permanent long term effect.

    • Personally, I see the Covid-19 event as it unfolds as a major long term up tick for part 91 and 135 operators. Air travel is just to valuable for some people to forgo for any length of time. Many people will find the premium paid for private, or, semi-private air travel to be well worth it even to the point of wondering why they haven’t done it sooner.

  4. I just travelled from MCO to MKE and back last weekend. On the MCO tramway, the announcement by Orlando’s Mayor said that ~80million people visit FL yearly. That’s four times the normal population. With that many folks coming in from who knows where, I’d imagine that spread of the virus won’t be too long in the making in FL with attendant economic impacts. I don’t think I’ll be traveling out of MCO any time again soon … it’s a zoo there. By contrast, MKE was a ghost town and the weather there was good. It was a joy to deal with by comparison. But then you climb into one of those aluminum tubes with seat pitches one notch up from pages in a book and that gets scary, too. I did see people wiping everything down around their seats.

    • When I travel to Sun ‘n Fun, I usually fly my own plane, but on those occasions where I go commercial, I fly into Tampa (TPA) as opposed to MCO. It is about the same distance from Lakeland, but the Tampa airport is far easier to navigate. No long lines of families laden with Mickey Mouse souvenirs and grumpy kids.

      • TPA won’t work for me, John … but JAX would. Unfortunately, I think Mickey Mouse subsidizes fares into MCO so … the prices are always better there. I usually travel only once a year so … I guess I’ll try JAX next time.

        Are you flying your 177 to GIF this time? If so … give me the last 3 of your tail number. I usually stay a rocks throw away from there during SnF

  5. What’s the most effective way to avoid a social disease?
    Forego social behavior.

    But it’s not as easy as it was in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s world.
    Here in the Peoples Republik, Amherst College has banned fan attendance at this weekend’s NCAA women’s basketball event. They’ve prohibited tailgating, as well. The message? Go home. Lock your doors. Wait it out.

    How long? No one knows.

    Meanwhile, a half-mile away, U-Mass is holding their annual “Blarney Blowout,” a “day drink” event at which literally thousands of college students will engage in various forms of social behavior – all in very close quarters. Gesundheit.

  6. At this point, the biggest fear factor with -19 is that we don’t know what we don’t know. As Paul said, it came upon the scene so recently that very little is known about it, especially how it is transmitted and how long it can survive on surfaces or in the free air. Unfortunatly it seems to be contagious before the host shows any symptoms, which is why the early screening practices at airports were so ineffective. All that leads to near panic in air travel passengers. Alfred Hitchcock, the great mystery writer and producer, said our greatest fear is fear of the unknown. That seems to apply pretty well with COVID-19. How it all plays out remains to be seen, but one thing is certain; airlines, cruise lines and large convention venues are in for a pretty lean year.

  7. It’s been just 24 hours since I posted the first comment on this story. Since then, we now have our first two Florida deaths from COVID-19 and six new reported cases. What next? No one knows but one thing is certain: it ain’t over. Be careful out there and follow the CDC guidelines, everyone!

  8. The Senior center in Seattle reveled the real threat. People eligible for Social Security and have weak respiratory systems are at a very high risk of dying. The doctors knew what was coming and couldn’t treat those older folks.

    • How did people living in a senior center get the virus, I wonder. They weren’t traveling ??

        • Healthy, strong children are petri dishes. Since the beginning of time kids have been killing their grandparents. The older you get the more likely you will contract Pneumonia from any of a thousand viruses, flu, cancer, germs, bacteria or whatever. This one just happens to be more severe. From what I’ve been reading, most folks died within 100 hours after the flu symptoms appeared.

          The smart biologist folks need to create a better treatment for Pneumonia. In the end that’s what finally gets us.

          Prepare yourself for getting sick and practice good healthy practices. Lots of water, good rest, fresh air, sunshine, no sugar and exercise.

      • The virus probably came in with the staff, or in the deliveries from food service, or other supplies, and the younger people were not affected. There will always be a certain percentage of the population who will be exposed to a given disease but will not exhibit symptoms. As Klaus says, kids are transmitters in a huge way. Teachers will likely get anything and everything that happens to be going around, flu shot or not.

  9. The 3 big concerns with the corona virus are:

    1) It seems to re-occur after a week (biphasic)

    2) It causes pneumonia in serious cases, requiring hospitalization

    3) If you’re a US citizen and get quarantined overseas, that could be expensive. The US govt. doesn’t pay for flights or care.

  10. This is going to affect many people who planned to come to the US for Sun n Fun and also Oshkosh.
    No so much about the fear of catching COVID-19 which by the way is a real possibility given its ease of transmission. For us down under (Australia) the issues of being quarantined in the US and not being covered by travel insurance for it. Yes not covered by even the top level coverage insurance. This poses a huge financial risk to us. Sadly I have already booked and paid for Oshkosh and it looks increasing likely that by July COVID-19 will be having a huge impact on a wide range of events worldwide. Look how far this virus has spread in just 2 months. In another four months who knows what will be seeing. 🙁

    • Well, Paul, if you find yourself stuck in the US of A this July, I’m sure there would a number of local pilots willing to foster an Aussie during the quarantine period. Especially if that Aussie brings Fosters. 🙂

      • Thanks Kirk – Im sure your right. Sadly we heard that QANTAS has canned its new Brisbane – Chicago 787 Direct flights until at least Sept! Its not looking good for this year. I might at least get a credit on flights now that QANTAS has cancelled them and I didn’t.
        Fosters hahah – Do you know that Aussies actually don’t drink that anymore. (Fourex XXXX) is very popular with Aussies.

  11. The free lunch of packing more and more people into the planes has now issued its inevitable bill.

    At the same time, we are getting the bill for putting our taxes on labor rather than consumption which has caused all our manufacturing to go to China.

    I guess I’m the crazy guy on the hill because no one is discussing this on the news at all.

    • You bring up two very salient points, Eric. Just the other day I mailed myself on a low cost carrier and within four feet of my personal location were nearly a dozen people … any one of which could have been sick.

      And the notion of a World Economic solution is now coming back to bite us. There are SO many things that you’d love to buy saying ‘Hecho en US’ yet it’s impossible anymore.

  12. Eric, interesting that you should bring that subject up. In my former life, I consulted with a number of clients on something called business continuity, which is a fancy name for figuring out what things could cause a serious interruption of their business. One of the first questions I asked them was do you have a backup vendor for any materials you need to stay in business. They always said yes, but they never checked to see if the backup was in the same area as the primary. We looked at things like hurricanes and earthquakes, but a pandemic in a particular region would do the same thing. The concentration of manufacturing in China has put American businesses in a very vulnerable position, even if their final assembly takes place within our borders. Just ask the pharmaceutical industry where all their suppliers are located….

  13. Since 2010 the CDC says 252,000 people died of the flu in the US. The lowest deaths per year was 12,000 in 2011-12 and the highest was 61,000 in 2017-18. So far, the CDC has estimated 12,000 to have died in the US of the flu from 10/2019 to 2/1/20. Covid-19 is a strain of the flu.

    The mortality rate for the Spanish Flu of 1918 was 2.4% of those infected which resulted in over 50 million deaths globally over two years. According to the CDC common yearly flu has averaged .14% mortality rates of those infected. So far Covid-19 has had an average of .20% mortality rate of those infected, slightly higher than the average past mortality rate. However, no one is exactly sure how many are infected as many have no or very little symptoms. Many suffer normal flu-like symptoms with out calling a doctor for Covid-19 confirmation.

    Since Covid-19 is a new strain, the pharma companies have not been able to concoct a vaccine. Vaccines do not have a 100% guarantee that they prevent the flu. So, we now have a “mystery” virus which makes this strain ripe for massive speculation. Add the social media, internet, and proliferation of keyboard experts and blog posts, the planet has been saturated with misinformation, information, urban myth, and somewhere in the middle of all this, useful facts. But most want someone else to sort all this out and tell them what to do. Many governments have willingly obliged to that desire.

    So now, we are hearing the politically correct mantra that in the effort to protect us from ourselves, it is better to error on the side of safety by closing traditionally large gatherings of humanity. Dublin, Ireland has cancelled their traditional St. Patrick’s Day celebration. That will be the politically correct position until the politicians, local communities, states, and countries feel the financial strain ( no pun intended) of lost revenue due to these closings.

    Airliners are high flying, aluminum and now composite, disease petri dishes. They always have been flying science projects. Cruise ships are floating versions of sickness science projects. Trams, trains, subways, and buses are equal opportunity sickness providers. UBER has added an additional mystery opportunity by offering rides in cars ( which themselves are highly capable of infection) operated by even more folks of unknown pedigree, national origin, past travel history, etc. Shopping malls, truck stops, airports, restaurants, bars,etc are ripe for disease opportunities…and always have been.

    The only way to avoid getting sick from one or all of these forms of travel, large gatherings, and lifestyle choices is to not participate, stay at home, no work, no play, and develop some sort of household quarantine. What is unique in this situation is the opportunity for mass hysteria because of instant access to anyone and everyone’s connected sneezes. This makes it an ideal opportunity to affect global finances in an previously unprecedented way.

    Now, we are faced with serious personal decisions regarding when, where, and how we go to future aviation events. Those choices will have a huge affect on aviation business, local, regional, and national economies. I have participated as an exhibitor at many of these aviation events and the cost of participation is not something to be taken lightly. In many cases money has been spent well in advance of these events making cancellations costly with a likelihood of no reimbursement. Then is dealing with the domino affect that will inevitably happen as a result of Aero 2020/Friedrichshafen rescheduling or eventual cancellation.

    These decisions are not light, clear cut, nor without some risk. The question is, how much increased risk are we potentially exposed to in relation to normal life. While we all have opinions, and it is easy to postulate from our collective computers exercising keyboard courage, at some point, everyone of us aviation nuts will have to weigh all this information and misinformation and make a decision to participate or not in traditional aviation events we have grown accustom attending. Likewise, it will be a tough decision for exhibitors who are counting on our attendance. For me, I will be attending.

    It should be a very interesting business year for aviation. This Covid-19 flu may very well be a mortal wound for many aviation companies if their business depends on good attendance figures at these respective shows. Airlines are already sitting in a very precarious position with some folding. Many, many aviation businesses count on us aviation consumers at these traditional events.

    Aviation is not a business or hobby that easily translates to internet sales. The 3D world is unique with most of us wanting an opportunity to see in person, the company, products, and services that we depend on when we strap in, start up, and launch into the “wild blue”. We want to feel or size up these people, products and services in person. Flying is very personal. Flying and associated aviation as a whole is a unique shared passion that no other endeavor is quite like. It is an acquired taste which cannot be exactly duplicated or substituted. That is why we want to commiserate with like minded, equally infected ( again no pun intended) others because it is so special. Oshkosh for example probably has the largest percentage of active pilots in the world attending. Considering how few pilots are in relationship to the US population or especially the global population, Oshkosh has demographics unique to just about any other job, passion, recreation, or hobby in its ability to gather those who are globally active. And those attendees are the one’s spending their hard earned money on aviation products and services. These are not folks content to satisfy their aviation urges sitting in front of a computer screen. Virtual reality is not a replacement for real flying. Soon, it will be decision time for all of us.

    • COVID-19 is not a strain of flu (influenza) virus. COVID-19 is caused by a newly discovered virus called the novel 2019 coronavirus. Both viruses cause infectious respiratory illness and they have other similarities in their symptoms, transmission, treatment, etc., but they are not strains of the same virus. The flu can be caused by a number of different types and strains of influenza virus, while COVID-19 is caused only by the novel 2019 coronavirus.

      For a good overview on the similarities and differences between the two viruses, check out the following link:

    • Covid-19 is *not* a strain of the flu. It’s an entirely new version of the corona-type virus first identified in the 1960s and a new disease. Flu is caused by evolutions of RNA-type viruses. Both are respiratory infections, however. It progresses differently, too. As James mentioned above, it appear to be biphasic, which basically means you feel better, then you get worse again.

    • You wrote: “So far Covid-19 has had an average of .20% mortality rate of those infected, slightly higher than the average past mortality rate.”

      I don’t know where your numbers come from, but of this moment, there are 121,564 confirmed cases world-wide, with 4,373 deaths reported. This is a 3.6% mortality rate (not 0.20%), which is much higher than the Spanish Flu of 1918 — and that after 100+ years in medical and other technological advances.

      The problem is, that if 48 million people would be infected (400 times as many as the currently confirmed cases and about the number of annual flu victims in the USA alone), you would have to expect 1.75 million dead (compared to about 65,000 flu victims, if the same number were infected.)

      Everything is relative, and when the chance of dying from COVID-19 is more than 25 times higher than for dying from the flu, it seems sensible to pay more attention to it and to be extra careful. Especially when it seems to spread faster than the flu, when left unchecked.

      • We know how many people have died after a positive diagnosis. This number is the numerator in the mortality fraction.

        We do NOT know how many people have been infected with the virus. That number is the denominator in the mortality fraction.

        Without a reliable denominator, we simply do not – cannot – know the rate of mortality of this new virus.

  14. Raids on hand sanitizer and toilet paper notwithstanding, I don’t see the reactions to the virus spread as blind panic. The precautions being taken in the face of the unknown actually are pretty reasonable and all the people I talk with seem to understand that this is a problem that has a finite timeframe. When you lack data in the face of a unknown problem we all tend to fall back on generalized philosophies and adages and the one I hear over and over is “better safe than sorry”. That’s actually a philosophy that we in the aviation community (hopefully) practice every time we fly, or chose not to.
    Granted, there will be a huge monetary impact and some deep soul-searching about concentrating most of the world’s manufacturing capability in one region, but, except for probably the cruise ship industry, things will bounce back pretty quickly. My wife and I are already eying the discounts being offered by airlines and hotels for when the all-clear is sounded.
    Health is more important than wealth. It’s only money…

  15. I agree with you 100% Paul. Erring on the side of caution until we all (the whole world, not just the US) gets a hold on this situation. Better safe than sorry, especially our older population, which (as much as we don’t like to admit it…) is the predominant one in GA here.

  16. Covid-19 indeed is *NOT* a strain of the flu virus. It is as Paul and others pointed out a new strain of the coronavirus. Both are virus’s with similar symptoms yet individual characteristics.

    In the article referenced by Paul, the question yet to be answered is whether Covid-19 can be contained? The WHO seems to think, at this point, Covid-19 has a chance of being contained rather than the flu which cannot.

    While we wait and see daily developments, large event organizers are really stuck in a unique position with making the hard decision to cancel or continue as planned. Cancel large, traditional events, playing it safe losing the combined revenue benefits for the county, state, nationally, and the individual companies who participate? Or continue with the event with as much disease prevention policies as practically possible? If they continue the event but few show, was it worth it? If the event does succeed in bringing in the traditional numbers and a huge spike in Covid-19 infections result, it opens the door for all sorts of potential issues.

    Covid-19 places all of us in a unique decision-making dilemma. There is no precedence helping us to make a decision. I believe, way down deep inside, many of us want others to make the event cancellation decision relieving us of that responsibility. If the event goes on as planned, then we have to make the personal decision to participate or not. That is not easy when it involves something we really like to do, have traditionally done and look forward year after year, or job requires attendance.

    Flying is all about daily, hourly, and minute risk assessment in an effort to maintain situational awareness which ultimately manifests itself into constant and a continuous series of decisions. Over time, it can be almost seamless. Living life is always a balance of all of the above, in a general sense. Covid-19 is forcing us us to seriously consider a gut check that we normally have not been subjected to.

    • “I believe, way down deep inside, many of us want others to make the event cancellation decision relieving us of that responsibility.”

      I felt exactly that way yesterday. Today, no. I’m starting personal social distancing because the U.S. policy response to this is woefully behind. Not to really scare the hell out of you, but here’s some recent reporting that might change your mind. I hope this guy is completely off his rocker. But I somehow think he isn’t.

    • Another issue that has yet to be reported on by those people that don’t own/operate a business is the insurance cost factor. Any uptick in claims or lawsuits will effect insurance rates for years to come. If a large percentage of employees at AirVenture and SNF became infected, just think of how the Workmans Comp rates would increase, even if no one died. Then there is the visiting public to think about. You know there will be some ambulance chasing lawyers who will sue for wrongful death or loss of income if a large group is infected. But if you cancel/postpone an event, these concerns are reduced or eliminated. Of course there would be an uptick in unemployment claims, but the rates are much less severe and are averaged over the entire industry and many years. Some paid time off can further reduce claims for unemployment compensation. My girlfriend has worked in the healthcare and insurance industry for many years and she can attest to this. I worked in the heavy construction business and can tell you that there were many times when an employee was injured and we kept him at work with reduced workload but full pay to avoid paying workmans’ comp. For example, if an employee twisted his ankle, we sent him to a private clinic and treated his injury and had him back at work the next day, but he was just answering the phone or cleaning the office for a few weeks. The medical bills were paid in full for the employee by the employer and full wages and benefits were paid. This was in contrast to getting paid the maximum WC benefits that were always less than regular wages. Of course this was voluntary for the employee, but most chose to avoid WC claims.
      So, with that issue out there, I think that for many organizations, it is a financial decision to cancel events rather than a “we are concerned for the public and our fans”, issue. In the end, like any pandemic, the virus will take it’s course and spread to EVERYONE eventually no matter what precautions are taken, and then it will subside. Politicians are trying to get on record as trying to do everything they can to prevent the spread of this virus. In the end, they will have just postponed the inevitable.

  17. Regarding “COVID 19 Batters Aviation: Overreaction?”

    The most significant statement I read by the author was: ” There’s simply no reliable data by which to make a risk assessment. ”
    There are many issues associated c this malaise and until data can be obtained via testing, many of those who don’t take this seriously may have second thoughts. The US has been lacking in consistent leadership; one that first reflected denial, and now decisions by committee that slow down an effective and efficient response.
    Pilots training emphasizes situational awareness and risk assessment. I suggest we do just that.