America's aviation sector might collapse due to COVID — it might be a good thing

America's aviation sector might collapse due to COVID — it might be a good thing
© Getty Images

The economic carnage and social disruption wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic has affected virtually every part of the economy, but few sectors have suffered as much as aviation. This week alone, the three major U.S. airlines announced furloughs for thousands of staff. As Congress and the administration contemplate further measures to aid America’s faltering economy, they can’t afford to ignore aviation and its broad economic impact, including the 11 million aviation-related jobs supported by its $1.8T economy, representing 5 percent of U.S. GDP. To stem the industry’s apparent economic free-fall, Congress hastily allocated $10B for airport-related stimulus funds and liquidity through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. 

Rather than allocate funding based on passenger's lost and operating cost needs, the first round of CARES Act funding favored small airports serving no more than one-quarter of one percent of the nation’s passengers or functioning as airports for private aviation and flight training. Some small airports received enough funds to operate for several years while some of the busiest airports received enough to cover their operating budgets through July.  

Yet in the COVID-19 era, does the U.S. need all these airports? Our status quo is fundamentally changed from a pandemic depressing travel for good as well as national conversations around structural racism imploring us to question systems benefiting some at the expense of others. We should not infuse the system with short-term cash to maintain a status quo that is not returning. The second round of CARES Act funding scheduled for Congressional vote this week shouldn’t simply aim to save the sector — instead, we need to reform it. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Creating a more efficient, equitable and climate-friendly transportation system requires three reforms: 1) focus spending on the busiest airports; 2) channel more funding into alternative transportation infrastructures such as bus and rail; and 3) create clear pathways that fulfill the promise that aviation could be a path of opportunity for all. 

Pre-pandemic, our busiest airports were operating at or near capacity, carrying more than 70 percent of all U.S. passengers. Small airports, conversely, were struggling to keep their doors open, unable to stem the tide of local travelers driving or riding a train or bus to busier airports with lower fares and superior flight options. Smaller airports have spent millions of dollars incentivizing airlines to launch new flights only to see these services pulled when the incentive period ends; despite this, small airports are permitted to use their CARES Act windfall for airline incentives.  

Not only is focusing on funding on small airports not economically viable or sustainable, but it is also wildly detrimental to environmental justice and equity. The smallest airports receiving funding are those accessible only to private aircraft or to those able to pay the $100,000 flight school tuition on top of a bachelor’s degree.

It’s no wonder that a staggeringly low 3 percent of pilots are Black5 percent are Hispanic/Latino, and 4 percent are womenAirports, hotspots of noise and local pollution, tend to be located in minority neighborhoods. Small aircraft, which relatively fuel inefficient compared with rail and bus, contribute to air transportation’s acceleration of our climate crisis, a crisis that disproportionately affects Black Americans. While they bear the environmental brunt of aviation, Black Americans reap little of the economic spoils, as they comprise only 6 percent of air travelers and are disproportionately employed in the lowest wage airport jobs

The most persistent argument for preserving the existing aviation system is that all airports, large and small, fuel economic development. But, economic development for whom, and at what environmental cost? Investments in the status quo perpetuate a system that provides mobility and economic opportunity to an overwhelmingly white, economically privileged group while expediting climate change and exacerbating environmental injustice.  

The CARES Act must allocate funding to airports based on passengers and flights lost, prioritizing the busiest, most critical airports in the system. The CARES Act could — similar to TIGER/BUILD discretionary grants — allow small cities to reallocate airport funds and invest in high-quality intercity bus systems connecting their communities with larger cities and airports. This would unlock mobility for Black Americans and seniors less likely to own a car while providing frequent, inexpensive, sustainable connectivity. Finally, the CARES Act should prioritize small airports affiliated with minority-serving aviation colleges and Black pilot clubs. By reframing intercity connectivity, we can reclaim our nation’s founding principle of aviation, the “Winged Gospel”: the idea that aviation would be the foundation of a robust economy and a path to opportunity for all. 

Dr. Megan S. Ryerson is the UPS Chair of Transportation and an associate professor of Transportation Planning and Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Ryerson performs research on and serves as a consultant to U.S. and international airports, large and small, on issues of sustainability, equity, and regional connectivity.