Over the past two weeks, urgency about the COVID-19 coronavirus outside of Asia has grown slowly, and then all at once.
It is abundantly clear that the worst is far from over: The United States and the United Kingdom have barely begun to test symptomatic and exposed people.
Still, one of the questions I hear most from friends and colleagues alike is: When will things be back to normal?
It is a natural question, even if the worst has not even begun in many places. Executives are desperately trying to organize their operations and workforces to survive this crisis as soon and as robustly as possible, and it helps to have some understanding of how sharply the numbers will fall, when they will begin to improve and how travelers will behave in that recovery.
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In this dynamic situation, there are two natural comparisons people are looking at to understand how things might go: the recovery from the fallout of the September 11, 2001, attacks, and the more immediate - and still developing - example of how China is doing.
They are all we really have for now, and I will keep my eye on both as I work on forecasts, but today I want to look at some of the reasons the 9/11 fallout is not a simple bellwether for the current crisis.
Both 9/11 and the coronavirus pandemic hit travel hard and fast because travel played a huge role in both crises. Passenger planes were weaponized by terrorists on 9/11; in the COVID-19 pandemic, jet travel enabled the disease to spread far and incredibly fast.
In both crises, planes were grounded, but it seems clear that the extent of coronavirus-related grounding will far surpass the 9/11 stoppages before this is all over.
In both crises, airlines would need to institute extensive and uncomfortable new safety measures. But while keeping weapons off planes is hard work, keeping viruses off planes is impossible.
While keeping weapons off planes is hard work, keeping viruses off planes is impossible.
Both crises had global effects. But the 9/11 attacks all occurred on the East Coast of the United States, on a single day (although we did not know at that time if more were imminent, and we have faced more since). The COVID-19 crisis, in contrast, is spreading out around the world in patterns that are still not well understood.
Both crises disrupted life in cities around the world. But after 9/11, most cities (New York a notable exception) gradually but steadily re-enlivened after the immediate threat subsided. In the cities that will be hit hardest by this coronavirus, the local businesses that attract tourists seem to face a more uncertain future.
The comparatively dynamic nature of the coronavirus pandemic as it ripples across the globe will make this crisis significantly harder to bring to heel.
We can already see that in the first quantification by an industry organization of its estimated recovery needs. The $54 billion bailout the U.S. airlines are requesting represents about a third of 2019 passenger revenue. After 9/11, the airlines received a $15 billion package, about 15% of the prior year's passenger revenue.
In the absence of a simple yardstick to project how deeply and for how long COVID-19 will harm the travel industry economically, that gap is a clear indication that the airlines agree: It’s going to be a long and difficult road.
About the author...
is a freelance travel research analyst.