As soon as the airlines are requiring masks, people are flying again.
Airline passenger travel in the United States plummeted more than 95% in April. People stayed home because of concerns about contracting the highly infectious coronavirus on a plane or at the airport.
The number of people currently flying is still down about 75%.
This shows traveler confidence is increasing in the United States, says Joe Leader, CEO of Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX). But that is also a huge drop from the typical 2.5 million passengers at this time of the year.
Airlines are disinfecting their planes, practicing social distancing and requiring passengers to wear masks.
Aviation analyst Seth Kaplan says as soon as the airlines are requiring masks, people are flying again.
Bill Lentsch, chief customer experience officer for Delta Airlines, tells VOA that the company is keeping its flight no more than 60% full. He said Delta is blocking the middle seats. This will likely extend past the end of September. Having space between you and the next flyer makes a difference in safety, he says.
At Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., Francis Massaquoi arrives on a United Airlines flight from Chicago. It was the first time he had flown since the pandemic began in March. He admits he was nervous. But once he got on the plane, he felt more secure with everyone wearing masks.
Sue Choi, a law student who flew into Dulles on Korea Air, said she was a “little scared. I’m only traveling now because I absolutely have to,” she says. “But I don’t feel comfortable with it.”
Kaplan explains that a lot of business travel is out of service. Most people nowadays are visiting friends and relatives.
People like Donald MacCormack, 79, who from Dulles is flying to Texas after visiting his daughter in Virginia. He says he also has not been comfortable flying.
“I’m wiping down my seat,” he says, as he was about to board a flight to Houston. And “I’ve got a ticket in first class, so I can get on and off quickly.”
While many people are apprehensive about flying, others feel safe. John Regan travels for work. He says the efforts the airlines are taking to disinfect everything “gives me a level of comfort.”
Airlines are wooing back the public
The airlines, meanwhile, are trying to woo back the public by reassuring them that it is safe to fly.
Airlines for America, a lobbying group representing major North American airlines, says that the airlines are using HEPA filters, They help generate hospital-grade air quality.
Lentsch says he expects the safety measures that Delta is taking are going to be permanent.
“Cleanliness will be a long-term philosophy for the airlines,” APEX’s CEO says.
Douglas Kidd is the founder of the National Association of Airline Passengers, an advocacy group near Washington, D.C. He is concerned that most airlines will return to “business as usual” sooner rather than later. This includes packing the planes with passengers.
That’s a worry for passenger John Nichols, who is flying from Dulles to Boston for a friend’s wedding.
“I’m taking all the precautions I already can,” he says, which include a coronavirus test a few days before the flight.
The demand for air travel is slowing again due to travel restrictions by some states. And also because coronavirus cases are surging in parts of the U.S.
Jennifer Rockwell of Alexandria, Virginia, says she is not planning to fly anytime soon, especially to California. Where her parents live it is a current coronavirus hot spot. She plans to hold off on flying until there is a vaccine for the coronavirus.
According to Airlines for America, people will be reluctant to travel until there is “a strong degree of confidence that the health crisis is behind us.”
Even if that happens, Lentsch says it is going to be at least a couple of years before air travel gets back to anywhere near normal.