Before the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. airline industry drove $1.5 trillion annually in domestic economic activity and supported more than 10 million American jobs. U.S. carriers were operating a daily average of 28,000 flights around the world, carrying more than 2.4 million passengers and over 58,000 tons of cargo every day. Perhaps more than most sectors, aviation has been upended by the pandemic. U.S. passenger volumes are down 70 percent from a year ago.
While air cargo carriers like ours and some passenger carriers with cargo belly capacity have continued to move goods around the globe, maintaining our operations during the pandemic has been exceedingly difficult given the rapidly changing patchwork of COVID-related restrictions and other regulations that vary significantly from country to country, and even among various U.S. states. The U.S. Departments of Transportation and State have demonstrated strong leadership through their ongoing efforts to keep commerce flowing and ensuring that international supply chains remain open and secure.
This has been critical as the country has become even more reliant on aircargo, express delivery, and e-commerce to deliver the food, pharmaceuticals, supplies, and other products that businesses and people depend on. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) deserves tremendous credit for keeping our National Airspace System (NAS)operating and air controllers safe during the pandemic. While it necessarily focuses on these important missions in this time of national disruption, the agency must also look to the future—preparing for the day we can put this public health and economic crisis behind us and focus once again on increasing the efficiency of the ever-important air transportation system and the global commerce that it drives.
For our industry, while we continue to address the pandemic’s various challenges, we must also look beyond as the industry returns to pre-COVID levels of traffic. There is much work to be done. Besides the demands on the NAS caused by increased passenger and cargo volume, we must also successfully and safely integrate fast-moving, new technologies such as unmanned aircraft systems, urban air mobility, supersonic aircraft, and commercial space launches. Through NextGen, a multi-year modernization of the Air Traffic Control (ATC) system, the FAA and airlines have already invested ina series of air traffic management initiatives to boost efficiency and capacity while simultaneously enhancing safety. We need to continue the work that has already begun and use this temporary dip in flight activity to accelerate the realization of key NextGen benefits, such as increased airspace capacity. This opportunity is akin to completing important road construction at night or whenever traffic is light.
Among NextGen’s many potential benefits is a significant reduction in fuel usage and resulting carbon emissions. The aviation industry together has committed to ambitious environmental goals, including zero net CO2 emissions growth starting next year and a 50 percent carbon emissions reduction by the year 2050.