Donald Trump said he was looking “very strongly” at the idea of restricting domestic US air travel, in a further attempt to curb the spread of coronavirus.
Such a move would have a severe impact on an aviation industry already reeling from the effects of the global pandemic.
“We’re certainly looking at it, but once you do that you really are . . . clamping down on an industry that is desperately needed,” the US president said. “That’s a calculation that we’re looking at . . . We’re looking at it very strongly.”
US airlines have been badly affected, with fear and travel restrictions knocking demand for air travel. Airlines for America, a lobby group, said US carriers were burning through $10bn in cash each month. Moody’s, the credit rating agency, said global capacity would fall as much as 35 per cent.
The $2tn stimulus package that Congress recently passed to help the US economy weather the fallout from the coronavirus crisis includes $50bn for passenger airlines. But if airlines’ revenue falls to zero and stays there for the rest of the year, the industry would see a cash outflow of $40bn, according to Darryl Genovesi, an analyst at Vertical Research Partners.
“In this scenario, we would expect American, Delta and United to need additional capital in the first half [of the year] to maintain positive liquidity,” he wrote.
Mr Trump spoke as the number of US coronavirus infections hit 213,000 people and the death toll rose to 4,757, a 50 per cent rise from Tuesday. New York state remains the worst-hit area, with almost 2,000 deaths. Another 355 people have died in New Jersey and 335 have lost their lives in Michigan.
With the White House forecasting that up to 240,000 people could die from the virus, Mike Pence, the US vice-president who leads the coronavirus task force, was asked by the television news channel CNN on Wednesday why the federal government was not following the example of most states and ordering a national “stay-at-home” policy.
Mr Pence sidestepped the question, saying he was “very inspired” at how people were heeding the social distancing guidelines that were recommended for 15 days and extended by a month until the end of April.
Earlier on Wednesday Ron DeSantis, the Florida Republican governor, issued a stay-at-home order for the 21m residents of the state, which has a much higher proportion of older Americans, who remain the most vulnerable to the illness.
As governors across the US continue to report shortages of critical equipment — from masks to ventilators — Mr Trump said he welcomed the fact that many countries were stepping up to help America, which has become the worst hit country in terms of the number of patients.
“We have large cargo planes coming in from various parts of the world,” he said. “Every day, new plane loads are landing in cities such as New York, Miami, Chicago [and] Los Angeles.”
In a surprising twist, a Russian military aircraft landed in New York on Wednesday carrying medical equipment. The state department said the US had “agreed to purchase needed medical supplies” following a phone call last week between Mr Trump and Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president.
Mr Trump on Wednesday also said his administration was working at ways to make sure that migrant workers who are critical for farms would be able to stay in the US, or come over the border when required by farmers.
“We want the farmers to be able to get the people who have been working those farms for years,” the president said.
He also said his administration was looking at ways to help medical workers on the front line of the crisis, including possible hazard pay.
“It is something we are discussing, in terms of bonus pay,” Mr Trump said.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi