For obvious reasons, travel across the board in 2020 has been at an all-time low. Business travel and medical conferences have mostly been supplanted by teleconferencing and pre-recorded streams. Cruises are all but nonexistent for the foreseeable future. Air travel has also been discouraged in order to curb disease transmission, but this Thanksgiving week has seen record high numbers of air travelers since the beginning of the year. It would be interesting if there were a means to tally the reasons why people are traveling (i.e. emergency vs leisure), but I would suspect that any increase in travel is mostly for leisure purposes.
We can all agree that there is little consensus in what we should do collectively to curb COVID19 spread, and everyone including medical doctors seem to have their own convictions on what constitutes medical truth.
I recently traveled cross country to care for family. The following is an account of my observations of air travel this year.
Flights will still be packed
While some airlines are still blocking out seats on their aircraft to help with social distancing, many no longer do so. During the early months of the pandemic, many carriers were still flying their planes despite the lack of passengers. This was due in part to certain stipulations required for governmental loans and stimulus packages. Now that the window and requirements are exhausted, airline carriers are operating to reduce financial losses. The flights I took had only several empty seats, so there was no opportunity to social distance.
The gates during the boarding process tended to be crowded just like the pre-pandemic travel times. Flights did board from the rear of the airplane first, which presumably helps expedite the process. Once boarded, however, everyone is still stuck like sardines. The flight attendants did make periodic announcements for the passengers to keep their masks on, but I’d imagine that they were in a no-win situation when passengers do not comply. On one of the legs of my flights, my seat mate was actively coughing and kept his mask off during the entire flight.
In-flight service are also limited. Beverages are still offered, but in-flight food sales are not.
Will flights actually get you to your destination?
The premise of traveling is being able to arrive at your destination safely and timely. From what I’ve experienced, airlines have done their best to make travel as hygienic as they can. The cabins are sprayed with electrostatic cleaning agents between flights, and air is filtered using HEPA filters. I was given a 70% alcohol wipe to clean the armrests and tray table when I boarded my United Airlines flight. Overall, this is probably as much as airlines can do to convey that air travel is still safe.
Reliability of arriving at your destination, however, remains hit or miss. On the one hand, most airlines have waived change fees. On the other hand, passengers are also subject to the whim of schedule changes and rebookings that airlines initiate. This means that sometimes your originally scheduled flights are cancelled, and you are rebooked on a different flight that hopefully arrives at your destination roughly at the same time as your original flight. Airlines generally do a decent job getting passengers to their destination on time.
Where do people actually transmit disease?
In-flight COVID19 transmission has been shown to be limited in most studies/reports. Based on this logic, air travel is likely safe. However, travelers have many opportunities outside of flight to become exposed to aerosolized particles. Those additional contact points increase exposure risk.
Air travel is probably as safe as it can be during these tumultuous times, albeit uncomfortable. I would certainly not travel again unless absolutely necessary.
What are you impressions of air travel during the pandemic?