Famed investor Warren Buffett wasn’t kidding when he said the aviation world has changed: U.S. air travel was down about 95% in April from usual levels.
And while the numbers are stark, the industry is hopeful a comeback is on the horizon – and seeing a small uptick in travel.
“Over the last couple of months as we have all been sheltering in place, the one thing that we have learned is that as powerful as this technology is that allows us to communicate through the internet from two different remote locations, it’s not a substitute for being able to interact in person,” United Airlines’ top spokesman, Josh Earnest told CNN on Monday.
The irreplaceable benefits of aviation include “the ability of loved ones to go and visit their relatives, the ability to attend a wedding or graduation, the ability to take your kids on vacation,” he said.
But the airline is also bracing for a prolonged period of slumped demand. United leadership warned pilots it expects to furlough pilots after restrictions on staffing cuts linked to government aid expire on September 30. “No one knows when travel demand will return,” reads a memo, obtained by CNN.
Buffett revealed this weekend that his Berkshire Hathaway company had recently dumped its entire stake – worth $7 or $8 billion -- in the nation’s four largest airlines, including United.
Buffett said “we were not disappointed at all in the businesses that were being run and the management” at the airlines, but that the aviation business had soured.
“I hope it corrects itself in a reasonably prompt way,” Buffett said, noting he is unsure whether Americans’ decisions to remain grounded are temporary or longer-term.
Earnest, who is also a former Obama-era White House spokesman, said his airline’s current focus is preparedness for when travelers are “ready to buy airline tickets again.”
United and its peers have also worked to dramatically cut costs in an effort to stem their cash losses, and accepted billions in federal government aid.