If you’ve happened to stop by an airport pretty much anywhere in the United States lately, you probably noticed something different. Most of them look like ghost towns. If you doubt it, go check out the webcams set up at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. If you’re looking at this in the middle of the morning on a Tuesday, you’d normally expect to see planes lined up awaiting permission to take off. When I just checked the tarmac was basically empty.
It’s the same at most of the other airports as well. And this has had a drastic impact on the major airlines’ bottom line, as you might well imagine. CBS Los Angeles interviewed aviation journalist Brian Sumers, who says that the airlines have reached a crisis point and it may be years before air travel returns to any semblance of the old normal.
Sumers, who is a Senior Aviation Business Editor for Skift, says airlines are flying 90-95% less than they were expecting this time of year and with less than 10% of seats filled.
“Airlines are in a lot of trouble here,” he said. “This is the worst disaster for airlines since the history of aviation.”
In response, the airlines are trying to reassure travelers by showing new methods of cleaning like fogging cabins with disinfectant and constantly wiping down public areas, or informing people about how air circulates onboard.
“I don’t feel safe flying right now, I need to wait at least two months to wait, see what’s going on,” said Hugo Bañulos of Westchester.
The airlines are clearly feeling the pressure to find ways to fill up those seats again. So what are they doing in response? Hey, maybe they’ll finally start expanding the legroom a bit and improving service in a bid to tempt more people back into the skies!
Don’t make me laugh. That’s not even on the table. Instead, nearly all of the major airlines are going to make people wear masks on planes. You’ll also need to wear one at the check-in areas and the TSA screening lines. The flight attendants will be wearing them as well. While this is no doubt a sensible idea in terms of health and safety concerns, I don’t think it’ going to be making people feel all that much better about going to the airport.
Do you know what they’re not suggesting? None of them are talking about limiting the number of passengers per flight to a level where there’s only one passenger per row on alternating sides. That would at least accomplish the approved level of social distancing as people start returning to the airports. But they can’t do that of course. It would cut into their profits too much. And if they can’t cram everyone in like sardines, there’s no incentive for you to pay massively more to fly in first class, or even one of the “economy plus” rows with an extra two inches of legroom.
How long do you suppose it will be until air travel returns to what used to pass for normal? Or will this become a permanent change in how often people travel? The virus may well be around for years before we’ve got it under control. (Assuming we ever do.) Being jammed into a packed plane breathing the same recirculated air as everyone else is about the least desirable experience imaginable if you’re worried about catching COVID-19. (Not that flying was all that enjoyable to begin with.)
And as long as people are avoiding flying, multiple industries are going to continue to suffer and cost us plenty of jobs. I’m not just talking about the airline industry itself. Most types of tourism are going to continue to take a major hit if they can only attract people who live within reasonable driving distance. Most other businesses will be canceling big conventions and business meetings in favor of online collaboration and “virtual happy hours.” So the hotels and car rental companies will be taking it on the chin as well.
How about you? Do you plan to go back to flying on a regular basis as soon as the travel restrictions are lifted? Frankly, I’m operating on the assumption that I’m going to be sticking to ground travel from here on out unless flying absolutely can’t be avoided.