Defense Firms Limit Travel, Adapt As Coronavirus Spreads

The Royal Malaysian Air Force personnel wear masks at the Static Aircraft Display area at the Singapore Airshow in Singapore Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020 in Singapore.

The Royal Malaysian Air Force personnel wear masks at the Static Aircraft Display area at the Singapore Airshow in Singapore Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020 in Singapore. Danial Hakim/AP

Singapore’s air show was a “ghost town,” but so far, the organizers of big U.S. trade shows are pressing ahead with their events.

Should you stay or should you go? It’s the question rumbling through a coronavirus-spooked defense industry that is rethinking a busy spring slate of conferences and trade shows.

The risks of attending are real. A three-star U.S. Army general may have been exposed to the COVID-19 coronavirus at a recent conference, the Pentagon announced late Monday.

Talk of the coronavirus “has taken over the conversation, which is amazing in an election year,” said Eric Fanning, CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association.

Fanning intended to attend next week’s now-canceled South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. And he said February’s Singapore Air Show “felt like a ghost town” after Textron, Gulfstream, General Atomics, Bombardier and other exhibitors pulled out amid coronavirus fears.

But so far, several major organizers of defense-industry conferences in the United States, including the Navy League, touted upcoming events.

“All Systems Go for 2020 Show! Sea-Air-Space is proceeding full steam ahead!” the organization wrote in a Monday email about the event, slated for April 6-8 just outside Washington, D.C. [Editor’s note: Two members of the Defense One editorial staff are slated to moderate panels at the event.] The Space Symposium, an annual international gathering of space professionals in Colorado Springs, is still scheduled to begin on March 30, according to a Space Foundation spokesman. And the National Defense Industrial Association, which holds dozens of annual meetings and events, has not canceled any of its gatherings.

“Currently, no public health authorities in the United States advise canceling meetings, conferences or events,” NDIA spokeswoman Evamarie Socha said in a Monday email that also urged attendees to regularly check the association’s website for updates.

Indeed, at press time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that “Mass gatherings may be sparsely attended or postponed,” but its actual advice began: “As the COVID-19 outbreak evolves, CDC strongly encourages event organizers and staff to prepare for the possibility of outbreaks in their communities.”

As well, the White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said the Trump administration is “conducting business as usual.” 

But defense companies are not. Last week, coronavirus fears shut an F-35 production line in Japan. Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney barred their employees from traveling to another F-35 plant in Italy. Lockheed also found that one of its employees in its 2,000-worker plant in Sunnyvale, California, tested positive for COVID-19.

The disease has appeared in the Crystal City neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia, where many defense companies have offices just across the highway from the Pentagon. A person diagnosed with COVID-19 reportedly worked in a building where L3Harris Technologies has offices. Boeing’s defense headquarters is next door; the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program office is across the street.

Not to mention the stock market’s slide, which has generally taken large defense company stocks right down with the rest.

Several defense companies are reducing their employees’ travel, including conference attendance. 

  • Lockheed has “recommended postponing domestic travel that is not necessary for business,” Trent Perrotto, a company spokesman, said in an email. “Out of an abundance of caution and in coordination with local health officials, any Lockheed Martin employee with potential exposure to coronavirus are instructed to work remotely and self-quarantine.” 
  • Raytheon has suspended non-essential domestic and international travel in accordance with its “comprehensive incident management plan,” spokeswoman Kate Goulding said in an email.
  • Boeing is “temporarily limiting company travel to business-essential activities, re-scheduling certain events, reducing face-to-face meetings in favor of virtual meetings, enabling telecommuting when possible and encouraging employees to exercise caution and take all appropriate health and safety measures, in coordination with their managers,” spokesman Peter Pedraza said in an email. “These measures are temporary and aimed to prevent the spread of the virus, shorten its impact and ensure the health and safety of our employees as well as the general public.”
  • L3Harris Technologies is “conducting daily update briefings, reviewing appropriate procedures, increasing the availability of sanitizing and other health-related products, have banned travel to six countries and have stopped travel that is not business critical. We also are following and promoting the precautions recommended by the CDC/WHO and other health organizations, and communicating with employees, customers and supplier partners to address any concerns or suggestions they may have,” wrote spokesman Jim Burke.
  • Northrop Grumman said it’s “diligently monitoring this evolving situation and we continue to follow the CDC’s and World Health Organization’s guidance and keep our employees informed. The health, safety and well-being of our employees remains our highest priority.”

Meanwhile, AIA’s Fanning said his organization, which represents many defense and aerospace firms, is evaluating whether to cancel the events it has planned for members in coming months.

“Obviously, safety is paramount and we’ve got to react accordingly,” he said. “We’re trying to get to a place where we’re not reactive on a day-to-day basis to what’s happening and getting out front of some of these things and maybe making some proactive decisions...But everybody is kind of looking to everybody else to take the lead on how they’re going to address this.”

Fanning said he hoped the federal government would “continue to take the lead and provide leadership on this...We’re looking for consistent guidance that we can trust from our government and we would want to flow in behind that.”

But as defense companies continue to grapple with coronavirus, they may have to work around a slew of canceled or sparsely attended events.

“Like any other industry…interaction is important, so it’s going to have an impact, no question,” Fanning said. “There’s still a demand signal [for conferences and events], but the normal ways of doing business is definitely going to change.”

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