Air Travel and Disease

UPDATE: May 1, 2020

WOULD YOU like to hear a rundown of all the different ways COVID-19 is turning the commercial aviation business into a hellscape? A list of the various airlines that have ceased or suspended operations, maybe, or a synopsis of expected losses and long-term industry repercussions?

Me either. Because it’s changing day to day, and because summarizing it all is too depressing for me to handle.

Call me prescient. Some morbid gloating, maybe is all I’ve got left. In a post on February 27th, two months ago, I foresaw a scenario in which 80 percent or more of U.S. domestic flights would be grounded. This crisis would be significantly more disastrous than the events of 2001, I wrote, with one or more — or maybe all — of the major carriers staring at bankruptcy. At the time, the only canceled routes were to China. Nobody took me seriously. My colleagues all laughed at me.

The reality is already far worse. Carriers have grounded hundreds of planes and passenger volume has fallen more than 95 percent. How long this lasts, and what sort of industry eventually crawls from the ashes, is anyone’s guess right now.

A couple of weeks ago, Congress and the airlines agreed on a bailout package on the order of $60 billion. That raised a lot of resentment among politicians and the public. To be expected, I guess. Nobody likes the airlines, and nobody wants their tax dollars plucked away to save them. It’s also true that over the past six years, the biggest carriers squandered more than $40 billion in company profits on stock buybacks for their executives, leaving their companies with only a few months of operating cash should a worst-case situation like this one unfold.

The money isn’t a bailout per se. It merely covers employee wages for the next five months. Granted, wages are an airline’s largest expenditure, but together these companies will continue losing hundreds of millions of dollars per day. And what happens in September if travelers haven’t returned? It’s fair to say that if the lockdowns and quarantines continues for any length past the summer, the U.S. commercial aviation industry as we know it could be finished.

The huge irony is the modern commercial airline sector had been enjoying its longest-ever stretch of profitability and, no less important, stability. I can’t overemphasize that second point. For decades this was a cyclical business of wild highs and crushing lows. The nadir of this pattern was the airline apocalypse that followed the attacks of 2001. But in the years that followed, the industry regrouped, rebuilt and re-strategized. Among many changes were the three mega-mergers (UA/CO, DL/NW, AA/US) that helped consolidate operations and reduce overcapacity. By the mid 2000s it seemed like they’d finally landed on a business model that would guarantee consistent, long-term success.

Until this.

But I suppose that’s the nature of the business. There will always be inherent, unpredictable risks that can, on a moment’s notice, send the most profitable airline reeling. “Black swan events,” they call them. There’s no way around that. And those who’ve been in the airline industry for any length of time know it. We feel it, every time we go to work, even in the best of times. Nothing is ever certain.

In my career as a pilot I’ve worked for five airlines. I’ve been through three bankruptcies and a furlough that lasted almost six years. And for pilots, any threat is especially worrying because, should you find yourself laid off or your airline out of business, you cannot simply slide over to another one and take it from there. In the United States, the way airline seniority systems work, there is no sideways transfer of benefits or salary. If you move to a different company, you begin again at the bottom, at probationary pay and benefits, regardless of how much experience you have. This is how it’s always been, and there are no exceptions. You lose everything.

Airlines are doing best they can, adjusting on the fly, so to speak, to rapid and massive changes in demand. This in uncharted water, and nobody is fully certain of how best to handle it. As to which carriers survive, and in what form, it mostly comes down to how quickly passengers return to flying — plus good measures of perseverance, government assistance, and innovation.

And here’s a question: At what point is the cure worse than the disease? What doesn’t make sense to me is the scale of our reaction — the unfathomable vastness of it. The hysteria, the nonstop media amplification, the willingness to bring society to a grinding halt. It feels like we’re half a step from the end of civilization.

I understand the benefits of “flattening the curve.” The lockdowns aren’t about stopping the disease, they’re about reducing how many people are catching it at once. All of that makes sense to me. But is there not a way to accomplish this without laying waste to the entire global economy? Isn’t there an approach through which we can save the largest number of people without simultaneously throwing tens of millions of lives into chaos, and killing untold numbers indirectly through economic stress and unemployment?

What if the trickle-down effects of an economic wipeout cause greater and longer-lasting suffering than coronavirus would in the first place? Already in developing countries under lockdown — Philippines, India, Zimbabwe — people who were living on subsistence-level employment are literally starving to death. The United Nations says that lockdowns and quarantines could push up to one billion people into severe poverty. Here at home, if the pandemic triggers a depression, we could see the loss of income and health insurance for millions of people, increased poverty and homelessness, and on and on.

Is an all-out binary approach truly the wise choice? It may be that the morally correct option is to keep the economy running. Versus what feels like the morally correct thing. We wear masks and do our social distancing dances. But what if, in the long, run, we’re making life miserable for millions?

Meanwhile we keep hearing people make reference to “when this is over.” There’s a lot of talk and prognosticating about “after.” For example a friend says, “I don’t feel safe flying now, but after coronavirus I’ll be back.” Or, “Let’s hang out again soon, after COVID.” This is a flawed way of thinking. Because what constitutes “after?” Without a critical mass of immunity or a vaccine, coronavirus is not going away. It does not stop. There is no “end.” It becomes chronic and permanent. Initially the point was to flatten the curve. I think most people have forgotten this. Notice how the cheerleading has changed from “flatten the curve!” to “stop the spread!” The goal instead has become to simply not catch coronavirus, in the foolish belief that with enough social distancing and enough mask-wearing, it will simply disappear. Which it will not.

It’s kind of amazing, meanwhile, and a little distressing, how quickly people have acclimated to a very different way of living. If I see the phrase “new normal” one more time I’ll scream. Because nothing is normal. I want no part of this to ever seem normal — except maybe for the decline in carbon emissions and less trafficking of pangolins.

The reality is, when people are afraid they adjust very quickly, to almost anything, accepting ways of life that are ultimately harmful. I’m starting to see the specter of coronavirus as a new version of “terrorism.” The latter messed with the thinking and behavior of an entire generation after 9/11, when people — including our leaders — became self-destructive in response to a threat that, at a certain point, they could barely define or explain.

Though maybe I’m being paranoid. A lot of the predictions people made after 9/11 about how we’d change as a society turned out wrong. They said we’d become a less violent, less superficial, more introspective nation. The opposite happened.

A comparison with 9/11 also helps to explain how and why our response to COVID is becoming dangerously politicized. After the 2001 attacks, it was mostly people on the right who bought into the hype and fear; who saw terrorists around every corner and were willing to sign off on things like the Patriot Act, TSA, the Iraq War, and so forth. Left-leaning people resisted. This time, it’s left-leaning people who are the more fearful and pessimistic, while those on the right are advocating for a softer, more laissez-faire approach.

Both crises have been similarly sinister in how they they can warp people’s thinking and behavior. But they’ve attracted opposite crowds. Why? I suspect it’s because people who lean right are more naturally drawn to responses involving power and conflict; going after enemies, etc — all the things that came into play after 9/11. This particular crisis, on the other hand, centers on concepts like compassion and “saving people.” Thus it has galvanized that mindset instead of the more reactionary one.

Regardless of the reasons, the more this becomes a left/right conflict, the more entrenched the two sides become and the longer it’s likely to drag on.

So much about this is so bottomlessly frustrating. And with all of the amazing technology we have, how is this happening? Here in the richest country on earth, people can’t even get tested. This is why I always laugh when people propose how, no matter our self-destructive tendencies, “technology” will be there to save us from ourselves. How’s that working out? Look at coronavirus. Look at climate change. Look at the spread of false information. Technology is meaningless if the society that controls it has no idea what it’s doing. It barely needs saying: technology is much more likely to ruin us than to save us.

For years, as the population continues to grow and we continue to upset the natural order, experts have been warning of a coming pandemic. Ironically, this isn’t the one they’ve feared. It can be lethal, but COVID-19 is nowhere close to the catastrophe that many predict is inevitable. That is, a highly contagious, airborne virus with mortality rates of 30, 40, or 60 percent. I can only imagine our reaction to that one. Coronavirus is in many ways just a dress rehearsal.

And when these things happen, the airplane, bless it, is in many ways the focal point. If you’re an aerophile like me, you take a certain perverted pride in that. Such an important thing, this airplane. If you’re a normal person, you probably find it terrifying. As you should. Air travel is, if nothing else, an exquisitely efficient vector for the spread of pathogens. Not because planes themselves are incubators of disease, but because of how quickly they move vast numbers of people around the globe.

Once, after arriving in the United States on a flight from Africa, I noticed a lone mosquito in the cockpit. How easy it would be, I thought, for that tiny stowaway to escape into the terminal and bite somebody. Imagine an unsuspecting airport worker or passenger who has never before left the country, and suddenly he’s in the throes of some exotic tropical sickness. Actually, it’s been happening for years. Cases of “airport malaria” have been documented in Europe, resulting in several deaths after faulty or delayed diagnosis. It’s just a matter of time before this happens in America, if it hasn’t already.

In 2014, at the height of the Ebola crisis, I became ill on a plane returning from Ghana. It was mostly a gastric thing, but with a high fever as well. (To this day I’m unsure what the culprit was, but it’s not by accident that in all my trips to that country since, I’ve never gone back to Epo’s, a popular chicken and noodle place in the Osu neighborhood.) I wasn’t especially worried, and wanted nothing more than to grab my commuter flight home. But the Port Authority paramedics who met the plane had other ideas. Ghana was free of Ebola, but to them, “Ghana” sounded a lot like “Guinea,” where indeed the disease was raging. That’s literally all it took. Thus I found myself ordered into an ambulance and left alone for two hours in the parking garage at Jamaica Hospital, while the staff figured out what to do with me. Then another hour in a quarantine chamber while a nurse, costumed for Chernobyl or a voyage to Neptune, yelled at me from across the room.

“Look,” I said. “I don’t have Ebola. But whatever I do have, it’s getting worse the longer you leave me sitting here!”

Where I’m going with that I’m not sure. I suppose my point is twofold. First, to emphasize the dangers of hysteria. I was basically hospitalized against my will because the country I was coming from happened to begin with the letter “G.” But also, yes, to illustrate just how ruthlessly jetliners can, potentially, push contagions from one corner of the globe to the other.

To this point we’ve been lucky. Who knows what maladies the future holds, in a world moving full-speed toward environmental cataclysm. We will see this again, and next time it could be worse.

Author’s photo.

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104 Responses to “Air Travel and Disease”
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  1. TIMOTHY HYDE says:

    Given that social distancing is impossible in an aircraft, has any research been done into the transmission of bacteria in an aircraft’s air circulation system. Is it possible to kill bacteria by adding infra red systems into the circuit? Does the 787’s filtering system, reputed to be 99.7% efficient trap bacteria? If so, how is it safely disposed of on landing? If the bacteria is being circulated in the air system, then the cabin crew are at a heightened risk of catching it.

  2. Brian Anderson says:

    With respect to the draconian airline pilot seniority system – isn’t this the fault of the union? These kinds of pay/experience disparities destroy the connection between productivity and compensation. The only others who work under such rules are in public education (where else do two people with the same job in the same place at the same time have a 300% variance in salary?) Pilots could accept a less steep salary curve that paid out the same total working life compensation – but still offered perks to its more senior members. If the airline industry needs radical change to survive, it needs to look here as well.

  3. Robert Hart says:

    Unfortunately for us, leadership on the national level was and is abysmal. The President’s and the White House’s reaction, which continues to this day, was to deny that the coronavirus posed any real threat to the United States and to publicly play down the potential impact of the virus again and again. Saying things such as ‘we have 15 cases now and that will be zero soon’ or ‘it’s just like the flu or a cold’ or ‘it will just disappear” (which was repeated just in the last day). We allowed about two months to go by before we began to respond, and most of that response was at the state and city level, not by the Federal government.

    South Korea is what flattening the curve looks like. In the time that South Korea righted its course, the United States veered into disaster. Both countries saw their first case on the same day in January. In mid-March, the U.S. and South Korea had the same number of coronavirus-caused fatalities—approximately 90. In April, South Korea lost a total of 85 souls to COVID-19, while the U.S. lost 62,000—an average of 85 deaths every hour. Today, South Korea has a total of 10,840 cases and 256 deaths and we have a total of 1,286,833 cases and 77,280 deaths (or what Kushner calls “a great success story”). From April 11 to May 6, we, the U.S., have averaged 2,121 dead per day. And no one can say we weren’t warned many times over the past several years, and again at the beginning of January. But those warnings were ignored. I really enjoy your blog.

  4. Fuel to Burn says:

    All I have to say is that I love the nod to the LA punk scene on the cover of this post.

    I’ve been enjoying this page for a couple years now, thanks for doing it.

  5. Heidi says:

    The half measures we’re taking are not going to work. It needs to be all or nothing. Some states open with some locked down means we’re all going to be dealing with this a lot longer, because like it or not, we’re all in this together.

  6. Olivier says:

    For Heaven’s sake **STOP** calling the COVID crisis a black swan!! Such lazy thinking disqualifies anyone who engages in it. That there would be such a pandemic someday soon was entirely predictable and actually predicted. Nassim Taleb himself: the originator of the black swan meme, calls the COVID pandemic a white swan and he is absolutely correct.

  7. Spencer says:

    Thank you patrick for saying what needs to be said

  8. Joe S. says:

    When all of this is over, I’m going to be the nastiest, most miserable person you’ll ever encounter. The way human beings have behaved during this crisis has left me feeling nothing but contempt for the human species. I hate every single one of you. Patrick, I hate you. You people disgust me. Maybe we are all getting what we deserve. Just stay away from me, seriously.

  9. Rapier says:

    While the first air travel bans were imposed by government that only quickened the eventual collapse of those routes and then all others as people avoided travel to reduce their risk. Just like to a large degree the state lock downs are functionally just putting an official stamp on something that millions of people would do anyway to protect themselves.

    As we will now see first in Georgia with the quickest end to official lock downs, those are hardly going to mean a thing in gross economic activity. The knock down effect of the slowdown in any one sector of the economy causes a slowdown in another, and then another. Which will mean Georgia is not going to suddenly turn it around.

    What I am trying to say is that the official lock downs were not causal in the collapse of air travel or the slowdown or collapse in most economic activity. All the economic slowdown is a first order effect of large amounts of people protecting themselves one day at a time. The official lock downs mostly just a hat tip to reality. The lock downs were not causal in the slowdown, just icing on the cake so to speak.

    Concentrating on the official lock downs then serves the political purpose of shifting blame to political actors. It also feeds the very human tendency to wishful thinking.

    The virus is the cause. It is a tragedy writ large, the economy, and small, each death. It can’t be wished away.

  10. Dan Prall says:

    I hear all you’re saying, and you’ve pretty much got it right, but for a bit of straight talk and catharsis, check out Ticked off Vic. Start with this one, and then check out his YouTube channel for more including airline bailouts.


    You know how the average person is a dumbshit? Well, half of them are stupider than that. Ignorance is curable, but stupidity is forever.

  11. Tod Davis says:

    Virgin Australia has sadly just gone into administration, they might be able to salvage it but it’s not overly hopeful.
    If Qantas had the monopoly there is no saying what would happen to the industry

  12. Michael says:

    I don’t agree with your views on how to respond to this virus, but I absolutely agree with your hatred for people say that this is the “new normal”. It’s totally abnormal and we should never forget that or stop trying to get back to normality.

  13. BR Draper says:

    Just wanted to thank you, Patrick. I’ve enjoyed your writing a great deal and today a few of your aviation articles were a welcome distraction from this crazy time and all the people who think they understand what’s going on. Wishing you health and strength for the coming months.

  14. Mark R. says:

    re: claim that “some people want this to go on as long as possible”

    I have heard a large range of views but have not heard anyone say this.

    My guess is it is the “anger” phase of the five stages of acceptance.

    My guess about how this will play out is there will be lessening of restrictions due to impatience and social / Econ impacts, followed by a resurgence of infections that will force a second wave of lockdowns. Not what I want to happen, but there isn’t the willingness to starve the virus to the level that would eliminate it. Maybe Remdesivir will help treat cases, but a vaccine isn’t an immediate outcome. Serological testing will help, too, but I’m skeptical that testing for antibodies will be managed better than testing for infectiousness.

    The 100 – 240 thousand dead estimate for the US is if the lockdowns are effective. Other estimates of how many dead in the country range in the millions without “non pharmaceutical interventions” (fancy term for social distancing). Worldwide, a one percent death rate would be almost 80 million, almost twice World War II.

    I realize most middle class Americans don’t think much about the workers who do the tasks to make our society work. We are starting to see grocery store workers, bus and subway drivers, slaughterhouse workers, police, fire, medical employees getting sick and dying. And of course, the mismanagement of this by the Trump family could not be worse.

  15. Haven says:

    THANK YOU, thank you, thank you for saying all the things that keep me up at night!!!!

  16. Tod says:

    It seems like some people want this to go on as long as possible and watch big business crumble. I’m personally terrified that we are close to the point where these restrictions are going to cause more harm (deaths included) than the virus itself.

  17. Gene says:

    A thought on the seniority thing.

    I wonder if ALPA has ever considered making porting seniority between carriers a bargaining point? Maybe something like if you change carriers, you keep 2/3 of your seniority years. That would open up the market a bunch because too many pilots who would like to change can’t, due to the losses they’d take in seniority.

    I’m not sure who would like it less, the carriers or the pilots…

  18. Adam says:

    Well, I mean, maybe. Yes. This is economically devastating. I truly get being scared that a career and industry, years in the making, decades in the unfolding, could be lost. But might your frustration be a result of that anxiousness? We have seen that this virus knows no boundaries, young, old, famous, not. I know you correspond and know Tom Bunn, and he has some interesting perspectives on why our anxiousness gets activated with this. Might be worth a talk with him, hell, maybe even a collaboration, looking at it from a “keep calm but keep your guard up” perspective. I don’t have an answer on what is best, only history gets to decide that.

  19. Many excellent points here Patrick. I’ve found myself using the same “broken clock is right twice a day” quote referring to Trumps question about whether the cure is worse than the disease. Several days before Trump asked it The New York Times posed the same question in a lengthy article. What would have served America better is an intelligent examination of these issues before they were enacted. If only America had adult supervision.

    I’d also like to note that air travel is one of seven factors contributing to the spread of formerly isolated diseases, a fact brought up in 2015 by federal security agencies. It is not just letting mosquitoes pass from one country to another or even passengers, but the germs that linger on airliners which are not required to be disinfected regardless of the daily parade of traffic that passes through them. This could have and should have been addressed prior to 2020. It was not. I believe this was the case because the spread of disease in this way is not traceable to airliners in specific cases, hence airlines have plausible deniability.

    Your characterization of our present crisis as “so bottomlessly frustrating” reflects exactly how I feel and no, technology isn’t going to get us out of it. Thoughtful leadership is what we need. For that, we will have to wait. I hope time is on our side.

  20. Matt D says:

    Maybe time to split this up into a new edition. I’m having a harder and harder time sorting out the updates from the original essay. Reading what is essentially the same story over and over trying to parse out the updates is getting a bit difficult.

  21. Lee Taplinger says:

    Patrick, your longest article ever, so at least on good think came of the crisis. People vote for Republicans because they think they’re strong on national security, yet look at September 11 and the aftermath. Why would anyone order every plane in the sky to land at the closest airport when the horse had already gone out the barn door? They could have proceeded to their destination and avoided huge disruptions. Why indefinitely ground every flight starting September 12 when the 19 Arabs were dead as dead can be? Why let bin Laden and 19 dead Arabs bring America to a halt when Bush could have ordered a National Guardsman with an AR-15 to sit in the back of every aircraft starting the morning of September 12.

    The media gloats every time a commercial airliner sets an all time distance record – you can board a plane in Singapore and land non-stop in Newark and with a booming economy have hundreds of thousands of people bringing all their germs with them everywhere.

    It’s like the Tower of Babel. Suddenly people could no longer build a tower to heaven. And with the spread of a pandemic virus, suddenly people can’t board a plane and deplane halfway around the world as easily as searching the Web for a discount ticket.

  22. RevZafod says:

    “a nurse, costumed for Chernobyl”

    Maybe Chernobyl would be one of the safest places to visit these days. Low population density, and maybe the residual radiation would kill the virus.

    Of course, you’d probably get infected while you travel there. I guess I’ll just stay at home, which suits my lifestyle at 79.

  23. Rex Boggus says:

    If commercial airline operations were killing 674 people each day (the current COVID-19 rate as on 4/2/20) wouldn’t we demand corrective action? The two 737Max crashes which killed fewer than 400 in the time span of 5 months certainly got our attention. The epidemiological responses to COVID-19 are the scientific, if painful, way to attack the problem. Since earlier actions (travel restrictions, quarantine, social distancing, testing) have not been taken, if they are not now followed the disease will be many times worse than the cure, not only in lives lost but also in economic toll. The irony is that in the U.S. alone, we can kill on the order of 400 people each day with automobiles, guns & opioids and accept that as normal.

  24. Michael Kennedy says:

    It looks like I picked a good time to retire and move to Canada, eh?

  25. Paul F says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more!!! And what is most infuriating to me is that they are basing the death rate on the number of positive tests and not on the number of people who have had the virus, asymptomatic or not!! When you figure those people who are positive and who have not been tested then the number of people can go up 100 fold from what they’re telling us and guess what, then the actual death rate is 1/2 of a percent and you ruined the worlds economy for that???

  26. Carole says:

    For the past 40 years or so, we have given the wealthy enough tax cuts to buy the larger yachts needed to escape when things go wrong. What if we had invested in global health research and recruited epidemiologists instead? We could have caught this in time, where we would now be quarantining individuals instead of the entire nation.

    Patrick’s story of the rogue mosquito from Africa sheds a lot of light on why we need global health expertise alongside global supply chains. It’s not just the global travelers, it’s also every single worker at the airports and ports who go home to their communities after their shifts that help spread an exotic disease shipped in from the other side of the globe. The Starbucks barista next to gate A-2 in the Atlanta airport has the same exposure as the barista in the Bejing airport.

    Epidemiologists saw C-19 coming. China published the answers on how to test for it. We could, and should have, had those tests as well as all the PPE necessary ready for the first wave, with more on order if there was a second wave. With a firm grasp of the situation, we could have then gone on to provide aid and expertise to the countries that don’t have those capabilities yet.

    There will always be black swans. The trick is to keep them out of the aircraft’s engines. We need to elect leaders who are prepared to invest in our future health versus their portfolios. We don’t do that. We elect idiots and blame the media.

  27. Ben says:

    @MDT Again, and I say this not to be cruel, but simply because it’s the truth: you have no idea what you’re talking about. I AM a medical professional. I went to medical school; I spent years making my living working in epidemiology. I would not call myself an expert, but I know more than enough to not need any media reports to make up my own mind.

    25-50% of infected individuals appear to be asymptomatic. This is according to the journal Nature, not some mass media outlet. This is exactly why the rules must apply to everyone. In Pennsylvania, one of the hardest hit areas is the rural county in the Pocono mountains. It’s actually even more dangerous in places like that because there are scant medical resources when people get sick.

    Just like we should leave the expert analysis on commercial airflight to people like Patrick, you should leave the public health policy to people who aren’t sheep. I’ll note that you didn’t refute any of my points but instead fell back on stupid political talking points straight from Fox that have no place in a national emergency. You can’t pick and choose which places to close because the virus is already everywhere, we have no capacity to test for it, and we’re not going to be closing state and county level borders. Even your precious Trump has realized this though only because he came to the conclusion that letting hundreds of thousands or millions of Americans die would not be great for his re-election campaign.

  28. Mark R. says:

    Chicago ER doctor explains why coronavirus pandemic “scares” him

    (not an April Fool’s)

    “I deal with gunshots every day and trauma and crazy stuff and this is the only thing that scares me,” said emergency room doctor, Dr. Scott Samlan. He and his colleagues at Mount Sinai Hospital on Chicago’s west side have been on the front lines battling the coronavirus pandemic with the limited supplies they have, even being forced to make their own masks to make up for the supply shortage.

  29. Mark R. says:

    re: MDT claim of media talking points

    Sometimes the media reports accurately, sometimes they lie – often it is a mix. People who post comments on websites sometimes misrepresent reality, too.

    With this story, paying attention to virologists, public health experts, hospital employees being overwhelmed (NYC, Italy, Spain, Wuhan) makes the most sense.

    Rural communities are having their cases spike, too. Yes, if you work on a giant farm you won’t interact with as many people as if you ride the NYC subway, but most rural people still go to grocery stores, PTA meetings, church gatherings, other efforts where breathing humans come in contact with other breathing humans. So these smaller communities will have their cases a few weeks later than the big cities. Most small towns have far fewer medical resources and personnel.

    Most “normal” people in our society probably could not describe any differences between bacteria and viruses. Similarly, asking people to “think for themselves” while having zero factual understanding is like asking the average airplane passenger to take over piloting of the plane since they are skeptical of media claims that the pilots don’t really know what they are doing when they ask people to stay seated because of upcoming turbulence.

    If you truly respect nurses and doctors, stay the F. home.

  30. MDT says:

    Ben, you just repeat the media talking points. I do respect the medical professionals who do the tough job and take the risks. But the media and tv experts only talk to advance their agenda. I can understand the extreme measures in NYC and such dense cities but what is common between NYC and Kansas or even Albany. In suburban and rural areas, people never come that close to each other.
    Plus the D governors keep going to extremes. In Jan they wanted all flights from China to continue and people to go the new year parades. Our mayor even did a photoop while visiting a Chinatown restaurant. Now they want to shut us all down till June, not just NYC but all.
    If you believe only the ‘experts’ then yes you can not think for yourself which normal people do. If something does not seem right, there is probably more than meets the eye.

  31. Mark R. says:

    Chandelle claims:

    ” One in 9,000 people on earth have thus far been infected and yet, more than a third of the populace are under some curfew or lockdown. I’m neither downplaying it nor being disrespectful to those who’ve died from it but the morbidity rate of 5% of C-19, affecting an identifiable, narrow section of society, is nowhere near commensurate with the noise being made about it. The economic fallout too is likely to kill as many as those killed by C-19.

    This too makes for interesting reading…”

    At the rate the spreading is happening it won’t be a tiny percentage of the total population that is infected. 5% or 1% or whatever percentage you like for billions of people would be an enormous number.

    The “” link takes you to a denier article at Global, a site that mixes real documentation of scandals with utter nonsense (such as the hoax that there were not plane crashes on 9/11). One of the experts quoted in that “article” actually has been warning that this is a very serious disease and I suspect he was not happy to be included as supposedly against taking this seriously.

    The US death toll is now greater from coronavirus than from 9/11, and the exponential growth is now getting underway.

  32. chandelle says:

    There’s a ludicrous amount of hype and hysteria over this COVID-19. One in 9,000 people on earth have thus far been infected and yet, more than a third of the populace are under some curfew or lockdown. I’m neither downplaying it nor being disrespectful to those who’ve died from it but the morbidity rate of 5% of C-19, affecting an identifiable, narrow section of society, is nowhere near commensurate with the noise being made about it. The economic fallout too is likely to kill as many as those killed by C-19.

    This too makes for interesting reading…

  33. Bruce says:


    “At what point is the cure worse than the disease?”

    Here in Australia, where restrictions are more severe than in the US, I’ve been wondering the same thing. Reports say that on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday last week, somewhere between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people in Australia lost their jobs. IN THREE DAYS. Our population is only 23 million, so that’s equivalent to up to 15 million Americans losing their jobs in three days. Many will remain unemployed for a long time: the economy isn’t going to get back to normal the day after anti-pandemic measures end.

    I found an American study that suggests that there’s a 10-year difference in life expectancy between employed and unemployed people. And, to be harsh, the bulk of people who’ve dies so far from the pandemic had less than 10 years of life left. So by bringing in extreme measures, we are almost certainly losing more years of life for society as a whole than we’re gaining. You also need to consider the quality of those years: we’re condemning people to a lifetime of poverty, with the ill health, depression, and poor prospects for their offspring that all of that entails.

    The Australian approach is so far doing an OK job of “flattening the curve”: infection and death rates remain quite low. But by looking at that in isolation, we’re not working out the whole cost-benefit equation. I fear that we are causing more death and more suffering than we are preventing.

  34. Ben says:

    Patrick, these comments don’t allow for a long enough text to get through the whys and hows of why our reaction has not only not been extreme, but woefully insufficient. I’d highly suggest reading this piece from a few days ago. It covers a lot, though not all.

    Note, in the 4 days since that piece was published, both USA and worldwide confirmed cases have essentially doubled. In 4 days.

    To put it succinctly, though, a) without the massive surveillance testing regime that was needed, there is no such thing as a low risk population. And if we let half the country go about business as usual, they are just going to get sick, spread the virus and make things much worse. b) the socioeconomic consequences will be far worse if we don’t take extreme measures and millions of people die. In that scenario, all those people die, and then we shut everything down anyway because…millions of people are dying. The economic crisis is caused directly by the public health crisis.

    My issue with what you wrote was not your intellectual stance exactly. Actual experts pretty much unanimously say you’re wrong, but that’s not the problem. The problem was the extremely callous way you wrote. “A virus that kills up to two percent of its victims is troubling.” Troubling? That’s between 3 and 6.5 million Americans, Patrick, depending on infection rates. Do you really not see how that comes off?

  35. Mark R. says:

    Thank you, Ben.

    Another thing to consider. US plans for pandemics have always included what CDC calls “non pharmaceutical intervention,” a fancy way to say when there are no treatments or vaccines, people have to stay home, not breathe on each other to slow the spread. This has been quiet US policy for several Presidential administrations, it has nothing to do with the current mis-administration.

    Yesterday’s episode of This Week In Virology (should be renamed This Day In Virology, they’re running more interviews than ever before) had a guest scientist who is a world expert in coronaviruses and ironically is now recovering from Sars-cov-2. He pointed out that if we follow Dr. Fauci’s advice in about 6 weeks the epidemic in the US would be mostly over. If we follow Dr. Trump’s advice, it will go on much longer and the body count will be much worse.

    The airplanes will still be there after this subsides, although travel demand has probably peaked, for good. Perhaps it is practice for the downslope of oil extraction and realizing what’s needed to keep a stable climate so agriculture can still function.

  36. Ben says:

    @MDT You have no idea what you’re talking about either. It is possible that a less strict approach could have been used had our government taken this pandemic seriously from the start, and used enormous amounts of surveillance testing to track and isolate sparks before they turned into full fledged outbreaks. That didn’t happen, and that’s why we are where we are. Europe didn’t learn the lessons from China, we didn’t learn lessons from China and Europe, and now people like you are sticking their heads in the sand and not learning lessons from New York. The midwest is seeing huge spikes in Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland, among others. New Orleans, in the south, is already a complete disaster. Miami and Atlanta are not far behind.

    I am not going to get into a political debate with a Trump cultist except to say that if what you propose is true: that this is a hoax cooked up by the media to sink your hero, what do you say to the rest of the world? They’re all in on it too? Italy has just decided to (so far) let 10,000+ of its citizens die? Nearly every country in the world (even your beloved Putin shut down Moscow last night) is on lockdown just to get Trump? Get real. You are completely deluded.

    And don’t you dare hide behind praise of medical personnel. It’ll be them taking care of you and your loved ones when they are sick because people like you didn’t listen to the health professionals who begged for tests, PPE and science-based public health policy.

  37. MDT says:

    I used to frequent and very much this blog from a pilot who also writes well. Probably satisfied my childhood dram of being one which never had a chance.
    I am really amazed and shocked at the negative reactions. I only read a few and could not go on. They seem to parrot the incessant media over-amplifying the situation. Obviously it is bad in NYC due to its density and the number of flights in Jan/Feb from China and rest of the world. But does NYC equate to any city in midwest, south or even DC, let alone the rural areas where there are no crowded places. Localized reactions as the federal admin has suggested would have worked. Flights in/out of the NY metro area could have been stopped. Checks could have been instituted at airports. If we use up our last few ‘bullets’ for this level of risk, what is left for even bigger ones sure to come.
    I really sympathize with Patrick’s loss of his beloved career and hope he gets it back soon along with all the 3M Americans who lost their jobs.
    My own analysis of what led to such complete shutdown rather than a measured healthcare reaction is the media and social media owned by few people worldwide are dialed into a state of extreme opposition to the current presidency as shown in the last 3 years of non-stop lies and hoaxes. So they collectively took this as a pretext to create chaos which can obviously be blamed on the president in an election year.
    I SALUTE the medical personnel risking their lives for this this serious disease.

  38. Mark R. says:

    Patrick: you say we could buy hospital rooms for all for the cost of this. But virtual dollars cannot automatically create hospital beds, train doctors and nurses, build equipment. Ones and zeros in a financial database are merely symbolic.

    Meanwhile, our hospital systems are strained and cracked, and the full force of the exponential epidemic is still looming on the horizon. It’s going to be a difficult next few months, to be polite.

    Plus, as spectacular as it is to jump from continent to continent, we’ve all known this would be a temporary phenomenon in human history. Fossil fuels are finite and the alleged alternatives are much less energy dense. Look at the global shutdown as a pause. If we are wise, we might see this as an opportunity for a course correction while we still have concentrated resources to reallocate for civilization to move toward being resilient.

    Here is a short video about one of the hospitals in NYC that is falling apart under the influx:

    ‘People Are Dying’: Battling Coronavirus Inside a N.Y.C. Hospital | NYT News

    Elmhurst Queens hospital – got a large refrigerator truck to store corpses

    They’re out of ventilators, running out of protective equipment, their incoming patients are sicker and sicker. Younger people coming in too (30s – 50).

    Dr. says if this goes on for much longer they will be in collapse.

  39. Rod Turnham says:

    I sincerely hope it doesn’t get this bad, but …

    Patrick, if it really does get as bad as many fear, YOU could start your second career as a writer!

    No, I’m not kidding! I’ll bet not one pilot in ten thousand can WRITE as well as you do, and you’ve already got an audience here HUNGRY for anything you can find time to write.

    Very few pilots can say that.

    Sign me up now to be first in line to buy your next book!!!

  40. Rod Turnham says:

    Patrick, I LOVE reading your blog, and usually find myself in total agreement, or at least learning things I didn’t already know.

    But I’m not totally with you this time.

    I do very much feel for your plight as the most important element of the airline industry, and probably the most under-paid. The airlines are being hit especially hard, as are some other industries. It’s a bad time, for example, for waitresses and restaurant hostesses. Not so bad for the cooks and drive-thru servers.

    But I’m appalled at the sentiment that this is just an older-adults’ problem, and the rest of you should just get on with your lives. I’m even more appalled that so many seem to agree.

    To just quarantine the retirees and let everyone else go about business as usual is the BEST way to make this pandemic as bad as it can possibly get! We’ve all got to work together to beat this thing; it’s just going to kill more people if we adopt a “we vs. them” attitude.

    This isn’t political. The virus doesn’t discriminate between Republican and Democrats, nor between rich and poor, nor between liberal and conservative. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t discriminate between yound and old! It will hitch a ride with anybody. Yes, it makes the older ones sicker, but it will hitch a ride with a child just as quickly as with a retiree.

    What I’d like to see is all those airline executives who were getting rich buying back the stock to start donating their riches to the airlines, to keep on paying everyone.

  41. Wol 747 says:

    Patrick: the big difference – as I’m sure you know – between the flu (even the 1918 flu) and this is that no-one has any immunity.

    Flu has an impressive killing power when NO-ONE is immune, but even in 1918 there was general immunity to some extent. Let’s hope your all-knowing president is aware of what most medical experts are not.

  42. Mitch says:

    p.s. concerning South Korea, here’s how they dealt with COVID-19.
    It was not easy:

  43. Matt D says:

    Relax. Looks like Uncle Sugar is riding to the rescue.

  44. Peter says:

    Patrick, I have to take you to task. I’ve always enjoyed your posts and have respect for your intellect. But no, no, no, on this you are very wrong. I’m not an epidemiologist but I read the international news, I see the graphs and listen to the experts. This is NOT the flu. I live in a city in a first world country under lock down and our death toll is rising too fast because our Government delayed too long. Just look at Iran and Italy and see their death rate. What’s not come out yet is India and Indonesia, when and if they ever get their acts together, hold on to your hat. I am so sorry for the loss of your career and I too am facing unemployment (permanently, I’m 62) but I am staying indoors, I am avoiding any other people and I am taking this very seriously. My apologies if this comes across as a lecture, I’ve not intended it to be, this is a terrible time for our world.

  45. Michael says:

    I’m afraid that you are totally wrong here. I write from the UK where the Government has just imposed a lockdown to try and prevent the health service from being overwhelmed and I totally agree with that, inconvenient as it will be. Read this BBC report (and the Imperial College study it links to):

    “The modelling projected that if the UK did nothing, 81% of people would be infected and 510,000 would die from coronavirus by August.”

    And the airlines will be bailed out and will fly again.

  46. Eric in NH says:

    There are only two ways that have been shown to be effective at dealing with this virus:

    A. Widespread testing, and identifying contact chains of people who have tested positive so that they, and the people they have been in contact with, can be isolated.

    B. A full lockdown for six to eight weeks.

    Option A is what South Korea and Singapore did. But in order for it to work, the affected region or country has to act as soon as a problem becomes apparent.

    Option B is what China did. They waited too long for option A to work, and also, as the first country to be hit, they did not have tests available soon enough.

    The hope is to “flatten the curve” enough to avoid overwhelming the health care system. Countries that have done this (South Korea, Singapore, China ex-Hubei) have managed to keep case fatality rates below 1%, which is still several times worse than ordinary flu but not a worst-case scenario. Countries that did not (Hubei, Iran, Italy) have seen case fatality rates of several percent. This is where the US is going if nothing is done, and it may be too late for the US to stop it, as it takes about three weeks for the effects of any restrictions to show up. Remember also that infected people can spread the virus even before the onset of symptoms (which in a substantial fraction of cases is never).

    Like it or not, the era of easy intercontinental travel is over.

  47. Wolfgang says:

    Why listen to experts like Tony Fauci? Why look at the data from China and Europe? Why listen to those test pilots who said two years ago that MCAS was a problem? To foresee a problem and counteract seems like a very rare ability, people prefer to wait until catastrophe strikes.

  48. Pepijn van Unen says:


    Your writing is normally analytical and level headed, this time it is not.
    I understand that you foresee the huge impact on your livelihood. It is something that does not only affect aviation. However no intervention now will only make it worse.

    Trying to compare this to a flu is a flawed argument. It is much worse than that. There is no hype. Italy’s heath system has collapsed. Spain’s is under threat of doing the same (I live outside Barcelona and have been in full lock-down for 10 days now). I honestly don’t know how the US will cope having seen the initial response there. Only South Korea seemed slightly prepared and had a clear plan from the start.

    This is the best analysis I have read:

    Vaccination, or natural attenuation of the strains, are the only long term solution but in the mean time it gas to be stopped asap.

  49. dbCooper says:

    “And here’s a question: does any of this need to be happening?”

    One can make a good case to answer “of course not”. It is indisputable that President Trump knew what was coming back in January, as did the Senate Intelligence Committee, among other congressional members. Yet they did, and said, nothing. Nothing! President Trump, until recently, repeatedly called it a democratic hoax. And he knew the coming pandemic was real!

    Back to your question, this article may shed light on why it is happening…..

  50. Gene says:

    Unfortunately, we may be Underreacting. Take a look at this explanation of a report from the Imperial College London and read the linked report.

    TLDR: We’re fucked.

  51. Beau-Rivage says:

    Emirates has since reversed its decision to shut down completely. Instead, it will maintain a small number of services:

  52. Mitch says:

    Emirates had no choice but to shut down.

    The flight crews wanted to work from home.

  53. laffo says:

    Glad I’m not a politician. How do you make these decisions. The flying community certainly knows the phrase “tombstone regulatio

  54. Carol says:

    Adding to my comment this video by an Italian. Go to the very end if you have no time:

  55. Carol says:

    It is reportedly way, way more contagious than flu. And mortality is faster.
    Look at the Seattle nursing home. Does influenza wipe out so many so quickly?
    I thought the response was excessive, but I’ve been convinced.
    At the same time…. I probably would risk a domestic flight.

  56. Michael Kennedy says:

    People are stupid.

  57. laffo says:

    Sorry..ran out of letters..last line should read:
    “You can’t get on public transport or in an office building without showing your status to a guard or cop. Many buildings also take your temperature walking in or out. “

  58. laffo says:

    I’m not qualified to comment on epidemiology, but blaming millennials seems a bit rich. I received this in email from a colleague in China last night;
    I came home to LA on January 12th, ostensibly for 3 weeks, for the Chinese New Year holiday which is ubiquitous across the nation. Over a billion people make a mass pilgrimage home for family gatherings. Everything stops, so [my coworkers] and I went to our respective homes (they are from Canada and England.) Then the shit went down and you know the rest. I returned to China on March 8th with assurances from my [boss] in China that there was no chance I would be detained or quarantined, and I have been quarantined in my hotel suite for the last 14 days. Twice daily two police officers come to my door and I am photographed while they point a digital thermometer at me and take my temperature. Tomorrow I am finally allowed to go to the office here in Yiwu albeit with a mask on at all times except when eating. The good news is that things are coming back to life here. The gigantic Small Commodities Market of China* which is across the street from our hotel is back open for business and bustling every day again. The government has implemented a system that uses the phone app everyone uses here to pay for everything to track movements and proximity to exposed or infected people and situations and shows a Green, Yellow or Red status. You can’t get on public transport or in an office building without showing your status to a guard or c

  59. Lurk says:

    Seems to me that governments have only two choices.

    A. Kick the economy in the fork now by implementing mass quarantine to reduce the load on health services and minimise the number of people dying or…

    B. Let lots of people die of Cv19 with the unwanted synergetic effect of lots of other people dying of other illnesses because the hospitals are choked with Cv19 patients and _still_ seeing the economy kicked in the fork because of so many deaths and the resulting disruption.

    Neither choice is good, in fact they’re both _awful_, but at least with choice (A) people are still alive and can be helped financially and economies can be rebuilt, albeit slowly. There’s nothing you can do for the dead except give them a decent send-off and if things get _very_ bad then even that won’t happen and we’ll be back to plague pits. Think I’m exaggerating? We already have reports that crematoria in Italy are overloaded.

    This isn’t academic to me. Members of my family have already been hit by choice (A). My sister works, or did until last week, in airline recruitment ,flight deck and cabin, a cousin is a contract caterer, guess how that’s going with no public entertainment or mass gatherings?, and her husband fixes jet engines for heavies. Another of my cousins works in France on tourist camp-sites so he and his wife are kicking their heels in “lockdown”, not getting paid. Another works in northern China teaching English again not getting paid and others, well you’ve got the picture.

  60. jeff baldwin says:

    note – i have a bad injury to a finger, so there will be no caps.
    i keep thinking that when all is said and done we may look back at how our reaction to a virus caused more suffering than the virus itself. i never thought about this concept at any time in the past when contemplating pandemic scenarios….which were always with a very high death rate, lightning fast transmitting virus/bug. I mean sure i imagined stores running out of things, but due to workers in supply/manufacturing/transport being dead or too sick to work, not because of effing panic buying. of course nobody really knows exactly what the future will be, so perhaps in a month those empty shelves stay that way due to disease..or maybe we just go back to normal with a collective, “whoa, we all went a little crazy there for a couple months….glad that’s over.” oh, and americans start buying and using bidets/washlets instead of gobs and gobs of toilet paper. : )

  61. Peter L Creary says:

    Your update of March 19 2020 is absolutely spot on. I’ve basically turned the news off. The virus is bad but the world’s reaction to it is insane.

  62. Jeff says:

    I hope you are wrong, and I also wish you good luck in getting through this with a life and career intact.

  63. Mark says:

    Come on down to Florida!

    We’re closing the beaches this weekend. Theme parks closed. Hotels are closed, restaurants and coffee shops are takeout only. And the best news: guns and ammunition are selling in record numbers.

  64. Jim says:

    Thanks for the column(s), Mr. Patrick. You almost always get right to the heart of whatever matter is current.

    There exists the normal reaction to normal news . . . and then there are the “side” issues that induce furor among us little people.

    Senator Richard Burr, R=NC, unloaded something between $581K and $1.6Mm worth of stock in the you-know-what fields while publicly downplaying the enormous risk of the virus.

    Burr is the chair of the Senate Intel Committee, which has access to the federal government’s most recent, classified, and sensitive info not routinely available to the general public, e.g. us little people. Burr’s committee got daily briefings on the threats represented by the virus, right about when he dumped the stock in a series of smaller transactions.

    Filth. Rotten, putrid, stinking, fetid, evil, pus-dripping filth, when an elected official says something at the very moment something is happening.

  65. Bruce says:

    Hi Patrick,

    I agree: it’s all terribly frustrating.

    Am I right in thinking that your job is still as a cargo pilot? If so, does that make you safer? Or does it mean that thousands of unemployed passenger pilots will be after your job, and prepared to undercut your wages?

    Watching planes flying into Sydney over my house, almost the only foreign planes I’m seeing now are cargo ones.

    I hope it all works out OK for you.

  66. CarlosSi says:

    Easy with the stereotypes.

    But yes that’s stupid.

  67. Mark R. says:

    I hope you and your colleagues get the honor to fly planes all over the world to deliver anti-viral treatments, especially to countries that lack the ability to develop them.

    Cancel everything. Slow the spread. Flatten the curve. Protect nurses and doctors.

  68. Carlos says:

    The US currently has two major worries: coronavirus and moronavirus while Trump et al stay in office. A few minutes ago he said he took ‘no responsibility at all’ -a perfect definition of the guy and what he’s done all his life.

  69. Average Citizen says:


    Thanks for your brave frankness and unique perspective. I traveled to Asia during the SARS crisis after weighing the risks and am still around. COVID-19 sounds more contagious, but no reason to stop the world and create a global recession. Hysteria and nano-second reaction to questionable news seems to be the reaction de jure these days.


  70. dbCooper says:

    As regards skirting the travel ban via a third country: Say I’m Italian and traveling Italy to Canada to USA. Would not Immigration or Customs view my Italian passport and deny entry? I’m missing something.

  71. Tod says:

    I’m booked for a holiday in Fiji in May. The only real concern I have is my parents driving me to the airport at 4am

  72. Colorado says:

    I posted here 7 days ago saying this was overblown and quoted stats from South Korea to back me up. Patrick sent me an email of thanks.

    In the past 3 days I’ve studied this extensively after one child’s college went to all on-line learning.

    I was wrong. Patrick is wrong. Most of the poster’s here are wrong. I’m not trying to be a troll, or be nasty, or start a fight. Instead I’m asking you to research this in depth. Google “Covid flattening the curve” for starters. Then Google “Covid Italy” to get the stories coming out from the health care workers there.

    The reason South Korea has such good statistics is that they contained the spread very very early in the process through quarantine and travel restrictions. The number of cases they had never overwhelmed their medical system.

    Italy, by contrast, did not. Two weeks ago their numbers looked like the ones in the US. Now the death rate is skyrocketing and doctors are having to choose who gets necessary care and who dies. Their systems are overwhelmed.

    You see too much focus on the fatality rate ignores just how severe this illness is for those who survive. many require ICU stays. Pneumonia and double pneumonia are common. There are only so many beds, so many ICU slots. The system will quickly become overwhelmed. Pandemic experts have studied this for decades and isolation to flatten the curve is the only solution.

    Trump’s plan is stupid, but containment in general is not.

  73. Lisa Sloan says:

    So grateful for your skilled writing, keen insights, humor, outrage, intelligence and willingness to share – always, but especially now. Thank you!

  74. Don Beyer says:

    Good thing the airlines bought back way over 10 BILLION in stock. Kept the price from tanking 80% to 78%. Solves the MAX fiasco too. Climate fanatics are happy.

  75. Adam says:

    I agree on all points…except the one about millenials. Us “older” millenials constantly get grouped with people born 15 years (or more) later than us. The news media, as you have said, has done a great job of creating this mass hysteria. But who is steering the ship at these outlets? The baby boomer generation.

    But yes, this is hysteria on a whole other level. It surrounds and will likely tank multiple industries, including commercial aviation.

  76. Simon says:

    Nice update, Patrick. It sounds like all this hysteria and overreaction is starting to piss you off about as much as it does me. I offer my sympathy to you. I realize that as a pilot you are likely to really suffer from all this BS soon. People obviously don’t have enough excitement in their lives so now they hype the heck out of this thing. Few realize that they’re pushing us into a full blown global recession. Trillions of $ lost, millions will lose their jobs. That will be real and lasting suffering, long after this virus has blown over.

    I’m not so sure I’d place the blame on millennials as I believe I sense you do (not that the guy in the pic isn’t a douche). I’m pretty sure this is to large extent social media. I live and work in a college town with lots of older folks with too much money and even more time on their hands. Those people kill it on social media and in that department they’ll give millennials a run for their money any day.

    I squarely blame social media for all this hysteria and overreaction. Social media got us Trump and now social media is giving us this. Yet we stubbornly refuse to ever consider we are under no obligation to use, let alone tolerate all that obnoxious and entirely superfluous nonsense.

  77. Mark R. says:

    Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the world’s leading medical experts, warned on Sunday that people over 60 should avoid long flights and cruise ships, and public gatherings in general. He is one of the most distinguished public health professionals on the planet.

  78. Lisa Gerr says:

    Hello Patrick,

    I am the administrator of a senior care home (14-bed) in Santa Barbara. Due to that responsibility, I am at the forefront of information dissemination.

    I started with your blog piece about the cleanliness of cabin air where you described the filtering system. Here’s a nerdy question. Most HEPA filtering systems have an MPPS of 0.3 microns. If my research is correct, the COVID-19 (and likely other viruses) is a particle size of 0.1. In my charge to create immediate policy and procedure, I am trying to verify the MPPS of a commercial airline HEPA systems.

    After reading your entry on clean cabin air, I searched your site for “COVID-19” and came across your March 5, 2020 entry. I am heartened by your evaluation of the global response as “hysteria”, as I have found my stomach in a knot here and there over the last couple weeks, sorting through the newsfeed to try and get a relevant perspective on the situation. I am on most agencies’ alert systems and am taking a 20-hour course provided by the CDC, “Strategies to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19 in Long-Term Care Facilities”, prompted by the COVID-19.

    Help me balance news bytes about the rampant isolation and quarantining; Italy, Iran and China, and the claim that we are buying into hysteria, because, I admit, I am emotionally confused.

    Thanks for your work!


  79. Mark R. says:

    By the way, the Governor of my little state just made an emergency request for 400,000 N95 masks, 100 ventilators (for giving oxygen to ICU patients), ambulance liners and all sorts of other stuff. Oregon has 4 million people, just over 1% of the country. Extrapolate.

  80. Mark R. says:

    Italian hospitals in the hot zone are getting overwhelmed.

    Seattle’s number of tested cases this morning are roughly where Italy was on Feb. 22.

    Coronavirus has a long incubation and people can spread it asymptomatically.

    Yes, most people will have a mild or moderate case (although long term impacts may be more than thought, the evidence is more mixed there). But the percentage who do need medical care suggests our hospitals could be overwhelmed this spring.

    City of Seattle is urging people to work from home today.

    It’s far to late to contain the spread. Behavioral changes are the approach now. Yes, wash and wash and wash. Don’t touch your face. Drink lots of tea to flush the virus into your stomach instead of your lungs, should you accidentally get some in your throat. But social distance is the other half which the media doesn’t stress, because people don’t want to do that (for obvious reasons) and the economic shocks will be severe.

  81. Kelly R says:

    Thank you for once again being the voice of reason

  82. Wolfgang says:

    I love your blog about flying, and I understand your fear of job losses in your industry. But unfortunately, you are as ill equipped to speak about epidemiology as I were to land a 747. The fact that seemingly few cases are still reported in the US is for lack of testing. Also, this is not about Case Fatality Rate, but about the huge number of people who will need to be hospitalized or who will need ICU treatment, for weeks at a time and the impact this will have on health systems and public life. If you look at current case numbers, please remember this is an exponential curve. As the Head of WHO said today: „This is not a drill.“ So, bad as it might be for many industries, please get informed from good sources like WHO or CDC, and accept that this is the big one.

  83. Colorado says:

    The oft-quoted WHO stat of 3.4% is extremely misleading. It says 3.4% “of reported Covid-19 cases”. We know that the number of reported cases is far fewer than the actual number of cases for many reasons. Only the most severe cases make it into the stats at all.

    The big problem is getting accurate statistical data. One country that is doing very well to collect and report data from *all* cases is South Korea. They have reported over 5300 cases. No fatalities under 30. Very few under 50. Overall death rate among **confirmed** cases .6%. Heavy concentration of mortality over age 70. Actually very similar to ordinary flu.

    One of the worst countries in terms of stats is the US, very likely because of the intentional government clampdown on information. (What the hell?) As of this morning the US had 128 reported cases and 8 deaths. That’s a very high percentage, but NO ONE who studies this thinks that the 128 reported cases is not wildly under reported.

    It’s definitely an over-reaction. It reminds me of Y2K. A few years before Y2K there were very significant risks because the problem, while known about for a quarter century in advance, had been largely unaddressed. Then a huge investment was made across the board in Y2K testing and fixing. By Dec 1999 there was no threat – any minor problem not already found would easily be fixed by the on-call staffs. But the public panicked anyway and emptied stores and bank accounts.

  84. MarkS says:

    The 1989 World Series was interrupted by earthquake, but I don’t know how the airlines fared during that natural disaster.

  85. James David Walley says:

    0.7% mortality rate? The W.H.O. just raised it, based on current statistics, to 3.4%. But what’s a nearly fivefold increase among friends?

  86. Peter F. says:

    Just saw on TV news that United will reduce USA and Canada service by 10%, international service by 20%, and will offer employees voluntary unpaid leave. This, and the Lufthansa grounding, as Patrick points out, are because of unnecessary panic. More airlines could follow suit: yikes!

    Couple of observations….

    As far as I know there’s nothing in place now like the Air Transportation Stabilization Board, which provided federal loan guarantees to stressed airlines in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. This aid arguably saved America West and USAirways from bankruptcy back then; some similar program could be a needed lifeline now.

    In an environment of coronavirus-panic capacity reductions and aircraft groundings, operators won’t be in any hurry to get their grounded 737 MAX airplanes recertified and back in service, nor take delivery of new orders: “Dear Boeing and FAA, Take all the time you need, no hurry, no pressure, we’re happy to wait!”

  87. Mark R. says:

    Seattle is the most infectious hot spot in the country, partly from people coming from China in January and partly because they’ve finally done a lot of tests to see what is happening. Washington State’s virologist estimated a few days ago maybe 600 cases, today, maybe low thousands. Since it has a long incubation and most healthy people get a mild or moderate case it’s impossible to quantify precisely.

    VP Pence is going to Washington State to meet with the Gov.

    I expect flights at SEA TAC to drop even further, quickly.

  88. mark r. says:

    India just stopped export of a bunch of antibiotics.

    And another hospital got contaminated today, the ICU needs deep cleaning before it can be used again.

    Looks like early predictions by epidemiologists this would go all over the world were correct. 1% of 7.8 billion people would be 78 million dead, much more than so-called Spanish Flu, SARS, MERS or regular flu. Even more than World War II in total number, although not in percentage.

    Also looks like Iran may need a new government shortly due to sickness (and now death) in their top leadership.

  89. Eric in NH says:

    Take a deep breath and step away from the TV news. I’m sure some people are panicking and hoarding supplies, but remember that news channels tend to run with news that draws eyeballs and (in the internet era) clicks, and news stories about people panicking are in that category. Most of the people I know are checking the adequacy of their supply of canned goods, and buying some if necessary (as I have been doing), but are not panicking. That includes my mother, who being over 80 is in one of the most at-risk demographic groups.

    That said, there is little doubt that this will cause a severe economic hit. The travel and leisure industry, which includes passenger airlines, is going to take it on the chin. So will any business that relies on supply chains that involve, at minimum, China or South Korea. The stock market selloffs you have been hearing about are a rational response to the likely economic impact of the virus.

    It also doesn’t help that so far, the US government has bungled the response. Or that Mike Pence, who as governor of Indiana botched the response to an HIV outbreak there, has been put in charge of the US response.

  90. Simon says:

    Thanks, Patrick, for being the voice of reason. The panic is absolutely unwarranted. It’s almost as if people were looking for something to get all worked up about. As if there were no real problems.

    In wealthy countries with good health systems most people will be fine and those who aren’t, belong to a group for which the seasonal flu is already a serious issue. The economic damage we cause by our knee jerk overreaction, however, is very real and will likely be far more damaging to most of us.

    I do take solace in the fact that if we now maneuver ourselves into a recession, at least that should cost Trump his re-election and that would indeed be a worthy cause. Talk about silver lining to an orange nightmare. 😉

  91. Gimlet Winglet says:

    The big thing that is different this time from relatively recent past pandemics (and the 1918 flu) is the quantity of communication about its incremental progress, and the greater understanding of how pandemics function and what the likely vectors of spread are. I can’t ever recall having a publicly available resource that tracks infections and deaths on a daily basis, broken out by country. This is both good and bad, raising awareness of the problem and encouraging people to take voluntary steps to reduce exposure and spread, but also contributing to a panic. But remember, covad has a long way to go before it gets up to the death level of even a routine winter flu.

    If the covad virus is still an issue in the fall I think this time we will cancel the world series and other MLB playoffs–after all, if we can cancel the world series over a stupid management-caused labor standoff (1994, sorry Montreal), we certainly can do so in the interest of public health. A more current bellwether will be canceling NBA games (and their teams’ travel).

  92. Mark R. says:

    The mortality rate may vary according to location.

    If you are in a wealthy country and are first in line to the hospital, your chances may be good.

    If the experimental drugs (Remdesivir, etc) turn out to work as well as hoped, then the pandemic may be slowed or stopped.

    However, there are lots of places in the world that lack quality health care.

    Now that Iran has it, it seems to be spreading to their neighbors, including countries that have had devastating wars that included war crimes like bombing hospitals. While I have concerns for family, friends, community, elderly, the greatest threat seems to be for societies that lack basic health care and don’t have any response capacity. In those places, the odds that complications and death will be a small percentage is probably small.

    It has been known for a long time that aviation had the potential to fan the flames of a pandemic wildfire.

    My sympathies to everyone in the travel industries, tourism, shipping, etc.

    It is a test of civilization and our cooperative abilities. Sharing medical expertise. Health care not warfare.

  93. Daniel Gless says:

    SPOT ON!

  94. Sarah McGuire says:

    Hi Patrick, I really appreciate your blog and it has helped me to (partly) get over my fear of flying, at least enough to resume flying.

    So I’m all about a rational response to threats and I appreciate a logical approach.

    No, COVID-19 isn’t the zombie flu or anything. But it is a new illness that overwhelms medical systems by using up available resources (beds, equipment, people) and by infecting medical workers. Moreover, there is an unknown but apparently high rate of “severe” illness with COVID-19. I’m talking about people needing ventilators and other intensive care, not someone feeling lousy at home for a week. Without advanced care, most of those people would die. And any possible long-term effects are a complete unknown.

    This has some predictable effects. Break your arm? have chest pain? need chemo? good luck and get in line, and also you are at high risk of getting infected in a hospital. Does your country not have enough ventilators/beds/doctors? that is very bad, because now there are none for you.

    So no, we shouldn’t panic or freak out. And heavens no, we should not engage in conspiracy theorizing or racial profiling or any other stupidity. But it is actually a serious threat to world health, and we should all be preparing at every level, just the way we should all pay attention to preparing for other realistic potential threats like earthquake, hurricane, or tornado.

  95. Andy says:

    Another physician endorsement here. We’re obviously seeing a lot of people freak out about this but I then I see a good percentage of them refuse to get a flu shot. I’m also an FAA AME and one of the things that I learned when I do my aerospace CME is actually how little viruses spread within an airplane. I had some ill conceived notion that someone in the front of the plane could spread the virus to someone in the back row as the circulation went from front to back (it does). This is a resource I share with some of my patients who travel…

  96. Noor says:

    Excellent read ! I’m a physician and I endorse your well reasoned argument about the mass hysteria about pandemics which in my view is actually augmented by the information asymmetry between what experts know about this epidemic and the knowledge that trickles down to public coupled with the unregulated social media. I do , however, wonder if airlines can take some extra precautionary measure to prevent its spread in the planes like using disposable trays, disinfecting sprays on lavatory door knobs and providing hand sanitizers to the travellers? As novel Corona Virus has a long incubation period of 14 days and a person remains contagious during this period, airlines collectively need to come up with unique, innovative but less intrusive prevention measures.

  97. Lily Wong says:

    As of now >20,600 have been infected and >400 have died—that is, if the figures from China are real. Considering how China arrested the 8 doctors who first exposed the virus, China has been covering this up for a long time. Videos leaked from Wuhan show that a lot of people have died and they were not included in the statistics. Yes panic is no use. But one should be well aware of other political factors in play. And WHO is no longer a reliable source of information as it is corrupted by China—look at all those African airlines that have suspended flights to China. No one is flying except Ethiopia, where the WHO comes from. The virus is deadly, highly contagious, and since Jan 16, the number of infected has gone up by 500 times. It is not fair to say people panic—panic is the first line of defence, so that people can take precautions. And as of now, Hong Kong’s border is still open to China. Everyday 15,000 people are still arriving from mainland China, and many of them are transiting all over the world via Hong Kong. And do not expect them to be honest about their travel history. In this way the virus is spreading around the world via Hong Kong. The world should be on high alert.

  98. Bob Palmer says:

    My back of the envelope calculation says the current corona virus has a kill rate of about 2%. And maybe much lower because infected individuals are probably undercounted while deaths are probably not. So, what’s 2%? No big deal?

    Then I thought about it this way: I live on the edge of a small city of 4,000 out here on the prairie. If we lost 2% of our citizens that would be eighty people. And I would probably know many of them. And yeah that is a big deal. I pray for all those who are affected by this disease.

  99. Bruce says:


    The reason Australian evacuees were treated like this was, of course, that they were almost all ethnically Chinese.

    If an outbreak like the coronavirus had happened somewhere that loads of white Australian twentysomethings hang out, like LA or New York or London or Berlin, none of this would have happened. For one thing, I’m not even sure that there would be an evacuation, as our media wouldn’t be calling it “The Chinese Disease”. For another, if there were an evacuation, the government would be promising to Bring Our Aussie Kids Home, and would do it immediately.

    Almost every aspect of international media and government response to the coronavirus has smacked of racism. Quite apart from the morality, I don’t think this approach is helping to save lives.

  100. Bruce says:

    ***”Ghana was free of Ebola, but to them, “Ghana” sounded a lot like “Guinea,””***

    I think there’s an elephant in the room that we’re missing here, both with ebola and the coronavirus.

    Ghana doesn’t just sound like Guinea. Ghana, like Guinea (and indeed the DRC, where Ebola was at its worst) is full of African people.

    The coronavirus might not be as dangerous as flu, but it comes from Hubei, which is a place full of Chinese people. And SARS, another coronavirus, also came from China, which is full of Chinese people.

    I don’t know whether you’ve followed Australian reactions to the coronavirus – why would you? – but it’s been an absolute car crash, while also being quite symbolic of global reactions. Australians in Wuhan were told they’d be evacuated. But the Australian government forgot to negotiate with the Chinese government to arrange this. The evacuation was not back to a quarantine centre in their home country proper (as it was for British and Japanese evacuees, for example), but to a former immigration detention camp on Christmas Island, 2000km from the Australian coast and 2,600km from the nearest decent hospital. They were told they’d be charged A$1000 for the flight to Christmas Island (this was rescinded after an outcry), and there was no indication as to how they would leave the island after their quarantine.


  101. Eric says:

    Part of me wishes that China would come out of the 15th century with respect to the “exotic” items they carry in their markets. As long as their culture finds it acceptable to eat dogs and other animals that are the source of these outbreaks, they should be prepared to be shunned and isolated on the global stage as a result.

    Perhaps part of their culture needs a reformation towards basic standards of hygiene with respect to what items are acceptable to have in a food market, and how they are prepared…essentially, they need to join civilized international society on some levels.

    It’s one thing to cling to cultural touchstones, but not at the expense of incubating and spreading disease to the rest of the world.

  102. Dror Maor says:

    I’m asking seriously.
    If the entire city of Wuhan (home to 11 million people) is quarantined, doesn’t that indicate that we’re NOT taking this too far?
    Great article as always, thanks.