Navigating life through the COVID-19 outbreak
By Mark Baker, AOPA President and CEO
Restaurants and bars are CLOSED, sports seasons have been canceled, international
travel is at a standstill, employees who can are working from home, and families are left
to stock up on food and self-quarantine. Even the happiest place on Earth isn’t looking
too happy these days as nearly all entertainment venues in the United States have
closed their doors. COVID-19 has uprooted the life of Americans in 2020 as the highly
contagious virus sweeps the globe.
We are navigating uncharted territory—unlike anything I have seen in my life. We hear
regularly from members who are expressing concern about the state of general aviation
and the implications of this pandemic. It’s leaving many of us, including me, with
questions and uncertainty. However, trying times are what unify us as a nation, as AOPA
members, and as pilots. For 81 years, we have remained true to AOPA’s mission to
protect your freedom to fly, and I want to assure our members that we will emerge
through this and come out stronger than ever. As long as AOPA is operating, GA will
always have a voice.
At this writing, we’ve seen numerous schools and businesses close in the past month.
The stock market saw its worst percentage drop since 1987, and we are facing economic
upheaval, but the airline industry is among the hardest hit. According to predictions by
the International Air Transportation Association, global airlines are set to lose $113
billion in sales as the virus spreads. Many have taken drastic steps to cut these losses.
Delta Air Lines is grounding 600 of its aircraft fleet, American Airlines is cutting
international flights by 75 percent until May and reducing its domestic capacity in April
by 20 percent, and United Airlines canceled 60 percent of its U.S. flights in the coming
months. The turmoil has left the airlines seeking financial assistance in the form of a
government bailout just months after record-setting profits and an unprecedented
demand for air travel. But it’s not just about the bottom line, this crisis is affecting
hardworking people, many of them AOPA members: pilots, flight attendants, gate
agents, and ground operations crews who keep our aviation ecosystem running every
Should the situation worsen, the White House has been in talks of a possible domestic
travel ban, although whether that would include GA is unknown as this issue goes to
press in mid-March. Unforeseen circumstances like this have plagued us only once
before in my lifetime, 9/11—the fateful day in which all air traffic was grounded, leaving
pilots stranded and operations in chaos.
During that time, AOPA played a crucial role in getting aircraft airborne again, thanks to
staff who essentially camped at FAA headquarters for weeks, advocating for GA in the
aftermath of the attacks. Amid the heightened security and state of confusion,
restrictions on aviation began to gradually lift. AOPA was a key factor in communicating
information about the status of the airspace system—and most important, the
organization worked with the Department of Defense, the FAA, and other security
interests to get GA aircraft flying again immediately.
No one could have predicted how drastically COVID-19 would change the industry in just
a few short weeks. We’ve seen it trickle down to our own events with AOPA having to
postpone the R.A. “Bob” Hoover Trophy awards ceremony and Go Wheels Up! Texas
featuring the AOPA Fly-In at San Marcos, in addition to canceling many of our safety
seminars and Rusty Pilots programs. The effects on GA are also beginning to emerge
with some flight schools temporarily shutting down, and checkrides being postponed.
Many segments of GA are paused as we wait out this pandemic.
One thing we do know is that GA is resilient in times of disaster. As a nation, we’ve been
through challenging times and our industry is always there to lend a helping hand. In
natural disasters like hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, and now pandemics, we stand
AOPA and several industry groups have been proactive in offering transport for medical
supplies, testing equipment, organ transplants, and key personnel and patients to more
than 5,000 general aviation airports. In a March letter to Secretary of Transportation
Elaine Chao (see “AOPA Action,” p. 12), we have made it clear that GA and business
aviation stand ready to assist in any way during this national emergency—once again
proving the vitality of our industry.
We’ve been through dark days before, and I’m sure we will face challenges again,
although hopefully not to this extent. Although it’s hard to see the finish line, the people
who make up general aviation will support one another, and we will come out on top and
be back to business as usual soon. Of that I am certain.