Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly made headlines when he said in an interview with CNBC that the dropoff in bookings due to the coronavirus scare had a “9/11-like feel.” This was particularly significant because Southwest is predominantly a U.S. domestic carrier. While there are confirmed cases and deaths due to COVID-19 in the U.S., the disease is nowhere as prevalent compared to countries like China, Italy, or South Korea.
This was a shock to many investors who still felt that the U.S. economy would keep chugging along going despite the headwinds of uncertainty from coronavirus.
From my admittedly amateur perspective, I don’t think coronavirus is going to affect travel and the entire economy like the 9/11 attacks. I think this can end up much, much worse. That’s because the enemy this time is much harder to defeat than a group of international terrorists.
I’m writing this article not to say what will happen or what I hope to happen. I live in Orlando, a town dependent on tourism and on convention visitors. I talk to people who work in theme parks, restaurants, hotels, convention centers and just a bunch of regular folks here on vacation. I see what people write on Facebook and Twitter. Finally, I know how I feel, and I like to think I have a better handle on the situation than the general public.
What is the main thing keeping people from traveling or booking future trips?
When it comes down to it, fear is the primary motivation behind decisions made during uncertain times.
After 9/11, what everyone was afraid of was obvious. People were afraid of dying in a terrorist attack. After the U.S. airspace was reopened, people were afraid to fly. We flew to New York at the end of that September. The mood on board was tense, but I wasn’t scared.
What changed in three weeks? First of all, I was sure airport security would be on high alert. There would be little chance of any knives or explosives getting through the security checkpoint. I also felt that the odds of terrorists trying the same plot again were pretty low with everyone looking for it now. If anything, they’d do something different, so flying was safer than other forms of transportation.
I can only speak for myself, but I also felt that the same thing wouldn’t happen again. Passengers wouldn’t allow it. Not us. Not this plane.
Additional safeguards were eventually put into place, like locks on the cockpit doors and the creation of the TSA. All of these were to keep us safe but also to give the impression of safety. It’s the same as when you’re worried about people breaking into your house, so you get an alarm system and put bars on the windows.
WHY IS CORONAVIRUS DIFFERENT?
With the coronavirus outbreak, people are afraid. Every day it seems to jump to another city or another country. Once it shows up, it only takes a few days before there are more cases and eventually reports of the first deaths from the disease. Stories of quarantines and isolation are all over the news. Entire cities have been isolated. Japan stopped all public events for two weeks, including the closing of Tokyo Disneyland in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease.
Here in the U.S., you can’t find surgical masks or hand sanitizer anywhere. People are scared and there’s not much information to go on. We have no idea where the disease may spread or when it might get there. It’s not surprising that people are planning for the worst.
The Domino Effect
The reason I think the effect of coronavirus on the economy in general and especially the travel industry could be worse than 9/11 is because of what’s already happening:
- Corporate travel is tanking. Major corporations have already issued directives telling employees not to take unnecessary business travel. The last thing a business wants is for their offices to become breeding grounds for the coronavirus. It would be a significant disruption to their ability to do business, not to mention the negative publicity.
- Major conventions are canceling. Facebook and Google both did away with their major developer’s conferences. The HIMSS conference in Orlando was cancelled, including a visit from the president. Most recently, the major event of the year in Austin, Texas, South by Southwest (SXSW)l was scrubbed by the organizers after many of the major corporations said they weren’t coming.
- Leisure travelers aren’t booking trips. It’s almost time for Spring Break, and if you haven’t already booked your trip, you’re probably having second thoughts. The same goes for summer vacations. How can you make any plans if you don’t know what will be happening in three to five months?
- Airlines are feeling the pinch the most, but soon hotels and other leisure businesses will feel the same. The cascade effect from these events will ripple through the entire industry. Hotels, restaurants, ride-sharing drivers, theme-park employees, and everyone else associated with the travel industry will feel the squeeze. How soon until budgets get cut?
- Once people (and businesses, because apparently they’re people too), feel the economy is on unsure footing, they won’t plan travel like they used to. Discretionary spending means it’s not a necessary expense. Better to stay home, save money and stay safe.
And then we’re headed towards a recession.
News Is Going To Get Worse Before It Gets Better
As I was writing, this headline popped up:
New CDC guidance says older adults should ‘stay at home as much as possible’ due to coronavirus
The CDC guidance comes as two top infectious disease experts with ties to the federal government have advised people over 60 and those with underlying health problems to strongly consider avoiding activities that involve large crowds, such as traveling by airplane, going to movie theaters or concerts, attending family events, shopping at crowded malls, and going to religious services.
This isn’t going to make people feel safe. We’re to the point where the CDC is telling us we need to wrap the sick and elderly in bubble wrap and ride this out until it goes away.
We’re Helpless to Protect Ourselves
Besides locking ourselves in our houses and not having contact with any other human, there’s no other way to know you’re safe. Anyone could have the coronavirus. There’s a good chance people have it and don’t even know it. Sure, we’re told to wash our hands and don’t touch your face. But how often to wash your hands and when? Have you tried not to touch your face for 10 minutes?
Forget about finding hand sanitizer, it’s all sold out. Same for face masks, but f you do happen to find some for sale, please stop buying them as they’re not going to protect you from coronavirus anyway. Save them for the the people who need them – those who are already infected and want to protect others from getting it. You know, people like YOU.
Do You Want To Get Sick When You’re Away From Home?
Getting the coronavirus and being quarantined sounds scary, but imagine being forced to stay in isolation when in a foreign country. Even worse if it’s somewhere where you don’t speak the language. That’s as much, or more of a fear of people traveling than actually getting the disease, as most healthy people will suffer mild symptoms or will be totally asymptomatic (read: show no symptoms). Maybe you aren’t sick, but the coronavirus develops where you’re visiting. Will you be allowed back home? There’s no definite word from the federal government on that issue.
How Will We Know It’s Safe?
This is one of the big questions. When we will know things are back to normal or at least are becoming stable at what is to become the new normal (which is becoming a higher possibility as every day passes)?
The government might tell us we have the all-clear, but they’ve been telling us to go about our business because this virus isn’t that bad. One voice in the government has even recently intimated it’s OK to go to work, even if we’re sick. Now they’re telling people not to leave their houses or to have contact with others. What’s the story, and who are we to believe?
What About Those Who Say We Shouldn’t Worry?
Travel Bloggers like Gilbert from God Save The Points and Richard Kerr’s Critical Points have written how they’re not going to stop traveling due to coronavirus. I respect the opinions of both of these bloggers and was very interested to hear their reasons why not to change your travel plans.
While I understand the viewpoint that the risk of getting coronavirus is low, and even if you do contract it, it’s unlikely to be deadly if you’re in good health. The damage to the travel industry and the entire global economy is far greater than the risk of catching the disease to any individual.
But tell that to the person who gets coronavirus while on vacation and ends up in quarantine. Even worse, the person who gets it, but it’s not too bad, so they end up giving it to their family, eventually leading to someone’s grandmother in a nursing home who eventually dies from it, along with five other people in the building.
Maybe that doesn’t happen, but perhaps it does. Want that person to be you because you were sure that this wasn’t serious enough to warrant missing the $500 business class fare to Italy?
I’ve already had to cancel travel plans due to the coronavirus. Fortunately, airlines and hotels have been understanding when letting people rebook or cancel reservations. They really have no choice if they want to keep on the right side of customers, which looks like it’s going to be important again really soon.
I’m genuinely conflicted about coronavirus. Part of my brain is already dealing with the fact that I’m eventually going to be exposed to it. Hopefully, that’s after a vaccine is available, and tested to be sure it’s safe (which is going to take years, not months.) I can’t see myself sitting home and not traveling until them.
But that’s the problem that makes coronavirus different from travel after 9/11. I can’t just drive instead of taking a plane to be safe. I can’t stay close to home, because who knows where’s really free from the virus.
It’s the perfect horror/thriller movie. There’s an invisible virus going around that you can have for weeks but don’t know it. It probably will just make you feel like you have a case of the flu, but there’s a 0.1% to 3% chance you’ll die in a hospital hooked up to a respirator if you get it.
I honestly don’t know what to do. I want to plan trips. I want to go to New York City next month like we planned. I hope we get to go on our cruise this summer and make our yearly treks to Texas for tubing at Schlitterbahn. I really hope we get to go to Japan this fall.
What will it take to make me comfortable with those trips? First of all, I want more information about the coronavirus. I want to trust that our government and all governments around the world are doing what they can to contain the virus. Until then, I’m going to be hesitant about going anywhere, and I don’t blame anyone who feels the same way.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary