Almost no one is flying during the pandemic. How long can airlines survive?

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LAX’s Tom Bradley International Terminal is a lot emptier now with the coronavirus pandemic. But why are some planes even flying at all? Photo by Ted Soqui for KCRW.

Air traffic is down 95% due to COVID-19, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti recently said. Planes are empty. Some may have one or two passengers — tops. Some flight attendants and pilots are contracting the novel coronavirus. Some have died, including 15 in just nine days, according to the LA Times.

So why are planes flying at all?

“The airlines are getting a big bailout,” says Brian Sumers, senior aviation business editor for the travel industry publication Skift. “As much as $50 billion are going to U.S. airlines.”

But there are strings attached, he says. The airlines have to keep flights running to almost every city they served before the pandemic.

“Congress wanted it, and that's the way it is,” says Sumers. “They view it as an essential service. So there are a lot of airlines out there that want to just fly essential routes, maybe to New York, to LA, once a day. But they can't.”

That means some planes are lifting off and touching down without a single passenger aboard. And if you think flight amenities have gone downhill in the past decades, it’s gotten worse.

“At best, you're getting prepackaged snacks,” says Sumers. “I don't think they're doing a whole lot of drink service anymore. You might be offered a closed bottle of water. It's just completely different than it used to be.”

Sumers predicts most U.S. airlines will survive the years it’ll take to get back to pre-coronavirus passenger numbers, but international airlines like Norwegian Air, which he says is on life support right now, may go under.