In a bid to survive, airlines are desperately trying to convince a wary public that measures like mandatory face masks and hospital-grade air filters make sitting in a plane safer than many other indoor settings during the coronavirus pandemic. It isn’t working, reports AP News.
Surveys indicate that instead of growing comfortable with air travel, more people are becoming skeptical about it. In the United States, airline bookings have stalled in the past month after slowly rising — a reaction to a new surge of reported virus infections.
Globally, air travel is down more than 85% from a year ago, according to industry figures.
The implications for the airline industry are grave. Several leading carriers already have filed for bankruptcy protection, and if the hoped-for recovery is delayed much longer, the list will grow.
The four largest U.S. airlines lost a combined $10 billion from April through June. Their CEOs say they will survive, but they have lowered their expectations for a rebound.
“We were all hoping that by the fall the virus might run its course,” said Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly. “Obviously, that has proven to be dead wrong.”
When Consumer Reports surveyed more than 1,000 people in June about their comfort with various activities during the pandemic, 70% said flying was very or somewhat unsafe. They rated going to a hospital emergency room or standing in line to vote as safer.
In a survey commissioned by an airline trade group, the biggest concern of travelers was the possibility of sitting next to an infected person.
John Kontak, a schoolteacher from Phoenix, said that was his fear as soon as he stepped onto a crowded American Airlines flight this summer to visit his parents in Ohio.
“I don’t know anything about this person who is sitting a foot away from me,” Kontak said. “They took the bottom line or the dollar over the safety of passengers. Next time, I’d rather drive back to Ohio than fly — it’s safer because I can control it.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says sitting within 6 feet (2 meters) of other passengers, often for hours, may increase the risk of getting COVID-19. But CDC also notes that most viruses and other germs don’t spread easily on flights because of how air circulates on planes.
Standard & Poor’s said this week that the industry’s prospects have gone “from bad to worse,” with global air traffic dropping by up to 70% this year. In May, S&P said a 55% drop was a worst-case scenario.
The airlines split in one regard. Delta, Southwest, JetBlue and Alaska leave some seats empty to create room between passengers. United, American and Spirit do not, arguing that social distancing is impossible on a plane.
Most flights have plenty of empty seats, but scenes of full planes alarm travelers.
There is an elephant in the room, though, and as one blogger pointed out, there’s the reality that, though we’re months into this pandemic, it’s still almost impossible to quickly get a coronavirus test (and the results) within 72 hours in many parts of the USA— especially if you’re getting the test for reasons other than being symptomatic.
And even if you can find somewhere to give you the test when you want it, that doesn’t mean the lab that processes the test will be able to get you the results when you need them.
That means summer travel beyond the borders of your home state could be incredibly difficult.
In addition, there is a slightly smaller second elephant in the room that no one is talking aobut, since the US government is refusing to renew passports quickly for except for emergency “life-or-death” travel.
This means that anyone whose passport is about to expire must wait several weeks to get a new one, and may not book a vacation in case they don’t get their passport back in time, thus further reducing the number of potential passengers.