The coronavirus, known as COVID-19, has quite literally taken the world by storm. Hundreds of thousands are sick, tens of thousands are dead and much of the civilized world has shut down. Some countries are experiencing a much greater health emergency than others with Italy experiencing a mortality rate above 10% and Iran not far behind at 7.6%. The United States has one of the lowest COVID-19 mortality rates on earth at 1.3%.
While the relatively low mortality rate is good news for Americans, the US economy is being ravaged by the systematic societal shut down that has been implemented in the effort to minimize the spread of the virus. According to the Associated Press the S & P energy sector is down 45% in the past month. Finance and banking are down 33%. Industry and manufacturing are off by 30%.
Discretionary spending is the sector that includes virtually any kind of travel from vacations at Universal Orlando to a business flight to Chicago. It includes cruise ships, air travel, car rentals and fast food. Coffee giant Starbucks lost 7% of its stock value in one day alone. Stocks in cruise ships, hotels and resorts are down more than 50%. Cruise companies are suspending operations and many hotels and restaurants are simply closing their doors until further notice. All of this adds up to very bad news for the airlines as well. Their stocks have plummeted by 40% during the health crisis.
It is understandable then, that the CEOs of the major airlines are looking for help. A trade group representing United, American, Delta and Southwest Airlines sent a letter to Congressional leaders this past week imploring mercy and assistance. “”On behalf of 750,000 airline professionals and our nation’s airlines, we respectfully request Congress to continue to move expeditiously to pass a bipartisan proposal that includes a combination of worker payroll protection grants, loans and loan guarantees and tax measures. Time is running out.”
The airlines’ request for mercy, for reason, and for time and money reminds me of the Book of Matthew in the New Testament of the Holy Bible. Matthew recounts the parable of a king who wished to settle his accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed the king ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since the servant was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
That same servant then went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.
I am reminded of the book of Matthew because the major airlines are hoping to divvy up a $50 billion taxpayer dollar pie for their industry. They plead with congressional leaders the case that coronavirus isn’t their fault. They are devastated. They couldn’t have imagined this coming. They just need a little help. They just need a little time. They are begging the King, or in this case, the U.S. government, for mercy, understanding and of course, money.
But United Airlines, much like the forgiven servant in Matthew, hasn’t learned the lesson of mercy. My 16-year-old son was recently scheduled to travel for a high school broadcasting competition against other students from all around the country. The trip and ultimately the competition itself were both cancelled as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. My son hoped to recoup his $221 ticket cost from United Airlines. He explained to their customer service the reason the trip was originally scheduled. He explained that the competition was cancelled as a result of the coronavirus and government orders. He explained that no one could have imagined this coming, that he had no control over the coronavirus and that clearly the cancellation wasn’t his fault. Could he please have a refund or at the very least, a credit toward future travel?
United Airlines, simultaneous with their request for a government bailout, denied my son’s request for a credit. Much like the two servants in Matthew, the reasoning for both the airlines request and my son’s request for financial mercy were the same, but also like Matthew, despite their plea for themselves, the airline felt no need to issue mercy, not even in the form of a single dollar of credit toward future travel.
Airlines in general are not exactly at the top of customer satisfaction surveys. Year after year shrinking leg space, increased baggage and seat selection fees along with unnecessarily grumpy flight attendants contribute to extremely poor customer satisfaction numbers for airlines. Complaints don’t seem to matter because airline industry profits in the past several years have been through the roof and contributions to Congressional campaigns continue to rise. In the last Presidential election year, the airline industry contributed $7.4 million to campaigns.
Before dishing out dollar one to the airlines in this unprecedented emergency, Congress ought to review the concerns of the consumer and set some standards for the airlines. Put a limit on the minimum seat size. Put a limit on how much can be charged to check a bag. Put a limit on how much can be charged to select which seat you and your children can sit in. Congress shouldn’t try and price the flights themselves, but the incessant nickel-and- diming of every flyer serves no one well.
More importantly though, Congress and the Department of Transportation should take immediate action on a pending airline item that could have a direct impact on the emergency effort to find a vaccine for the Coronavirus.
In August of 2018 the National Association for Biomedical Research filed a formal complaint with the US Department of Transportation. It seems some of the same airlines now seeking government assistance because of the medical emergency facing the nation are playing morality police when it comes to the transport of animals. If you want to ship your pet from place A to place B they will gladly take your money. If however you are shipping an animal to place B for the purposes of medical research, some airlines, under pressure from animal rights groups, are saying no.
This is against the law. If the airlines wish to decline to carry any animals, they can make that choice. If they wish to carry all animals, they can make that choice as well, but to pick and choose which animals they will carry violates federal law. Now more than ever, it also may endanger lives.
The National Institutes of Health, in their effort to solve the coronavirus dilemma as quickly as possible, is testing potential vaccines on primates. Just this past month, in the first weeks of the current pandemic, NIH issued a press release that said in part:
The experimental antiviral remdesivir successfully prevented disease in rhesus macaques infected with Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), according to a new study from National Institutes of Health scientists. Remdesivir prevented disease when administered before infection and improved the condition of macaques when given after the animals already were infected.
MERS-CoV is closely related to the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) that has grown to be a global public health emergency since cases were first detected in Wuhan, China, in December. The scientists indicate that the promising study results support additional clinical trials of remdesivir for MERS-CoV and 2019-nCoV.
This research is great news in the fight against the coronavirus and the fact that NIH is moving on to the next stage of testing is excellent. It is a giant step toward a vaccine. Unless of course, they can’t get lab primates because the airlines won’t fly them.
What irony that the rapid spread of the coronavirus has caused economic devastation for the airlines, who now seek a government bailout to save themselves. Yet those same airlines are ignoring federal law and refusing to ship the very lab animals that could put a halt to the spread of the disease that caused the economic chaos in the first place.
We all understand the government may need to play a role in putting the economy back on track for a variety of industries including the airlines. That said, circumstance puts the government in a unique position to force those same industries to do the right thing. If the airlines are begging for mercy because of COVID-19, the least they can do is show that same mercy for travelers impacted by COVID-19. If major air carriers need the government to help them because of this medical emergency, surely they can ship the animals essential to perfecting the treatment of the virus.
Congress and the White House need to demonstrate that while they are addressing the economic needs of the nation, they will make the reasonable needs of the people as their number one priority.
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