The US economy has come to a standstill, satellite imagery shows

Investing News

American Airlines planes parked in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

American Airlines

The coronavirus crisis is bringing the United States economy to a screeching halt, with every sector feeling the effects of most of the country’s workforce staying home.

Satellite imagery combined with other photographic evidence and alternative data sources give a stark look at the U.S. situation: Airplanes are parked on unused runways, the busiest highways are empty during rush hour times, resorts have become ghost towns, ports are seeing sharp drops in shipping activity and more.

The U.S. now has more coronavirus cases than any other nation in the world, as Johns Hopkins University data shows 104,837 cases in the States.  Transportation, hospitality and other service industries were the first hit as both leisure and business travel is now limited to what is considered essential.

Investors need to turn to alternative sources to gauge the scope of the economic hit because not many official measures have been released yet. This week markets did get one hint at what’s to come from official data. The U.S. Labor Department on Thursday reported that a staggering 3.28 million Americans filed unemployment claims in the previous week. That number shattered the all-time weekly record of 695,000 set in October 1982.

The drop in U.S. consumer and business activity is apparent in satellite imagery collected by companies like Maxar Technologies, Planet Labs, ICEYE and Orbital Insight. Here’s what you can see.

Airplanes grounded across the country

U.S. airlines are canceling flights and storing planes as travel drops sharply across the country. American Airlines has begun storing its aircraft in at least four locations across the U.S., including Tulsa, Oklahoma and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Planet Labs satellite imagery identified aircraft parked on the runway in Tulsa as of Tuesday.

American Airlines also shared pictures from the ground in Tulsa, where it is storing several Boeing aircraft including variations of the 737, 757, 777 and 787 planes.

American Airlines planes parked in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

American Airlines

American also parked several types of Airbus aircraft in Pittsburgh.

American Airlines planes parked in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

American Airlines

Deutsche Bank chief economist Torsten Sløk noted that the average number of passengers on a March day had fallen from more than 2 million to less than 280,000. That represents a steep 86% drop in daily airline passengers for this month.

American and Delta, which each have fleets of about 1,000 aircraft, both have around 10% of their aircraft in the air currently, according to flight tracking company RadarBox on Friday.

Delta is parking planes at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport. ICEYE, a satellite startup that uses a special type of imagery to see at night and through clouds, showed aircraft parked in Atlanta on Tuesday.

Synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite imagery shows airplanes, identified in the white boxes, parked in Atlanta.


Synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite imagery shows airplanes, identified in the white boxes, parked in Atlanta.


Synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite imagery shows airplanes, identified in the white boxes, parked in Atlanta.


Additionally, Planet Labs also captured Delta planes seen parked in Birmingham as of Sunday.

Delta was also reported to be among those parking aircraft at Pinal Airpark, outsize of Tucson, Arizona.

Victorville Airport in the California desert has also become a parking spot for dozens more aircraft, seen on one of its runways.

Disney World shut down

Emptying beaches in Miami

Vacant parking lots

With Americans working from home, corporate complexes became largely vacant in the past week. Planet Labs captured imagery of Mountain View, California, where one can see the empty parking lots for Google’s headquarters and NASA’s Ames center.

Shopping malls and major retailers across the country are shutting down stores, initially to protect customers and workers. Orbital Insight found that foot traffic disappeared as well as potential shoppers stayed home. Orbital Insight provide analysis using imagery from satellites and drones combined with data from connected cars, ships and more.

“We’ve seen a direct correlation between their work from home policies and the impact on nearby retailers,” Orbital Insight said.

Highways empty during rush hour

U.S. cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco saw empty highways during peak times when there would normally be lines of traffic.

“Auto traffic at chokepoints leading into San Francisco are showing decreased traffic, despite the relative safety versus public transportation,” Orbital Insight said.

Inventory at ports dropping

U.S. ports are also seeing incoming cargo drop sharply, with Factset data showing imports dropping nearly 20% in February compared to the previous month.

Planet Labs captured the decline at Long Beach, where there is a clear decrease in the number of shipping containers.

The increase in Americans staying home is apparent in communications data. Verizon on Tuesday said that “mobile handoffs,” a measure of when a mobile connection changes cell towers as a person walks or drives, are down 27% this week compared to last week. And, with the increase in the practice of social distancing, Americans are staying connected through texts, calls and video chats. Verizon found that there are an average of 800 million wireless calls on each weekday, a number that is double the call volume of a peak holiday like Mother’s Day. Additionally, Verizon says that calls are about a third longer than usual as people talk longer.

Economists at the biggest U.S. banks are now expecting the country’s growth domestic product (GDP) to contract sharply in the second-quarter, but there are a wide range of outcomes as they struggle to make estimates from so little data. JP Morgan expects a 14% drop, Goldman expects a 24% drop and Morgan Stanley expects a 30% drop.

CNBC’s Patti Domm contributed to this report

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