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  • The magnitude of the COVID-19 impact on air travel now compares with the September 11, 2011 terrorist attacks on the United States.
  • 9/11 was an inflection point for U.S. premium business air travel and has never recovered.
  • The current crisis could reset premium travel globally, accelerating existing trends and leaving a permanent mark on the industry.

Not since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 has air travel so swiftly plummeted. As The Air Current takes stock of the global impact of COVID-19, the 2001 attacks not only offer an historical parallel to the sharp drops in air traffic, but an insight into what may come next when people return to flying.

COVID-19 has gone global and the World Health Organization has warned that the spread of the virus is reaching pandemic conditions. With that amplified spread across Asia, Europe and increasingly North America, the disruption to air travel networks is following close behind.

Related: Once scarce, coronavirus creates a glut of unneeded airliners

Initial comparisons to prior regional crises such as SARS, MERS, and Ebola, including own earlier analysis, are no longer sufficient as global demand continues to drop.

Already, we are seeing evidence of wide-scale reduction in discretionary business travel, as companies reassess all non-essential travel along with widespread cancellation of large events and conferences. Not since 2001, has the airline industry witnessed such a sharp reduction in travel demand. If only for historical perspective, the comparisons are undeniable. With clear signs of forward bookings down between 50-80% in some regions, the economic damage inflicted by the global response to coronavirus increasingly looks like the industry’s next 9/11. On Tuesday, United Airlines President Scott Kirby said bookings (excluding cancellations) to Asia are down 70%, 50% across the Atlantic and 25% domestically.

It is within this context that The Air Current can begin to look at the possible long-term effects of the current crisis. The airline industry in many ways has never fully recovered from 9/11 – it realized and eventually adapted to a new reality, along with the shifting competitive dynamics. But how did traffic recover after 9/11 and what can that recovery tell us about the future for airlines on the other side of COVID-19?

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Courtney Miller is Managing Director of Analysis for The Air Current. Miller most recently spent 10-years with Bombardier Aerospace, serving as director, North America sales for the company’s commercial aircraft line and led airline marketing and analysis for the western hemisphere for airlines in North and South America and the community of global aircraft lessors. Miller is also founder of visualapproach.io, where he merged industry history and analysis with insightful and beautiful data visualization to illustrate contemporary trends. Miller is a 3,000-hour U.S. airline pilot and began his career flying for U.S. regional airline Comair. He holds a Masters of Aeronautical Science from Embry-Riddle University and a Bachelors of Science in Aviation Technology from Purdue University. He is based in the Dallas, Texas Metroplex.

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