The COVID-19 pandemic has radically changed our lives. Even the most basic and mundane tasks like going to the grocery store or grabbing a meal, have changed dramatically. However, if there is one facet of life that has been especially impacted, it’s air travel.
Beginning in mid-March, what the industry had expected to be another record-breaking year, quickly took a turn for the worst. The deadly COVID-19 virus spread rapidly from the epicenter in Wuhan, China, to every inhabited continent. The easily communicable disease led to a significant drop in demand for air travel. By April 2020, U.S. airlines were reporting average passenger load factors of just 13%.
The industry eventually began to rebound as lockdowns were lifted across the globe. Still, would-be travelers decided to forgo summer vacations. Business travelers remain grounded with employers favoring platforms like Zoom. With passenger traffic not expected to return to pre-COVID levels until 2024, the air travel experience is almost unrecognizable.
As lockdowns were lifted, I have returned to the skies this summer. Albeit, my summer travels have been drastically scaled back. This is for a variety of reasons, including out of an abundance of precaution and government-imposed restrictions. Nevertheless, I’ve traveled throughout the United States a fair amount this summer. Here’s what air travel is like in the post-COVID world.
Air Travel During The COVID-19 Global Pandemic
Airports are noticeably quieter. This summer, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is screening around 600,000 to 800,000 passengers per day. Last year, the TSA screened an average of 2.5 million passengers each day. With nearly 75% fewer passengers passing through the terminals of America’s airports, air travel is a radically different experience.
At TSA screening checkpoints, long lines of travelers are a thing of the past. Now, passengers trickle through TSA screening checkpoints. Even at Los Angeles International Airport, I encountered just one other traveler while passing through the TSA PreCheck queue. This time last year, I utilized CLEAR security screening and TSA PreCheck to avoid excruciating wait times at the airport. Prior to the pandemic, the summer months at LAX were plagued with queues spanning the departure halls of its terminals.
After clearing airport security, the airside corridors at most airports are shells of what they were before the COVID-19 pandemic. Except for peak departure and arrival periods, airport terminals are desolate. With so few passengers taking to the skies, tenants located within passenger terminals operate a modified schedule. Some tenants have yet to reopen. At Chicago O’Hare International Airport, nearly 75% of all restaurants and half of the airport’s shops and newsstands were closed. What were once bustling terminal staples filled with hungry passengers are now vacant. Numerous terminal tenants appear to have closed their doors for the long-haul with liquor displays removed from bars at restaurants and merchandise absent from retailers.
The impact the novel Coronavirus made on the airport experience was most apparent when I arrived off of a red-eye at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Most restaurants were not scheduled to open until 6:30 AM. Aside from the typical Hudson News-type newsstands, retailers and specialty shops remained closed. Even at one of the United States’ largest and busiest airports, passengers were limited to a few newsstands, a Starbucks, and various fast food eateries.
Luckily, the Minute Suites, a by-the-hour hotel-esque room rental service, had recently reopened both of its DFW locations. With my Priority Pass membership, I received a free one-hour suite rental. I extended my stay and managed to take a much-needed nap before my flight home. However, the Minute Suites experience had also been impacted by the pandemic. Blankets had been removed from suites as a precautionary measure. Nevertheless, I was able to appreciate the private retreat and a quick pre-flight nap.
Even airport lounges, areas typically associated with a premium or even luxurious experience, have become no more than a quieter and more physically distanced place to wait for one’s flight. American Airlines has scaled back its menu options at its network of Admirals Clubs. Self-serve snack areas are no longer with paper bags filled with various snack foods replacing fresh veggies and build-your-own mac and cheese bars. While American Airlines’ Admirals Clubs no longer offer mac and cheese or guacamole bars, most lounges continue to operate a full bar. Throwing back Chardonnay in airline lounges was, at least, one aspect of the air travel experience that has been spared by the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the exception of my flight from Los Angeles to Dallas, most flights went out with several open seats. American Airlines, my preferred carrier, is not blocking middle seats. However, this was not a concern on most flights with passenger load factors averaging around 60%. Though not ideal during a pandemic, I did get to experience what it was like to travel before the COVID-19 pandemic. On my flight from L.A. to Dallas, the entire aircraft went out full. Every seat was occupied. A gate agent even made the dreaded announcement informing passengers that those in boarding groups in 8 and 9 would likely have to check their carry-on bags. Still, this is an isolated occurrence that is only seen on flights between major hubs. Airlines are still reporting an average load factor of around 45 to 65% on the majority of domestic routes.
In-flight service is also a thing of the past. Except for a few longer domestic flights and long-haul international flights, in-flight service is limited to a small snack, a bottle of water, and a packet of hand sanitizer. In-flight service was one of the first aspects of the air travel experience axed at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, if travelers––even those traveling in first or business class––wish to enjoy a bite to eat, the terminal is their only option.
Ultimately, this new experience I have encountered while traveling during the Coronavirus pandemic is to be expected. In 2019, average passenger load factors within the United States were 85%. Today, average load factors are estimated at around 50%. With a significant decrease in demand for air travel, empty aircraft are to be expected. With fewer travelers packing their bags and heading to the airport, operating a restaurant or gift shop within an airport is no longer a lucrative venture. As a precautionary measure, airlines and airports are actively working to minimize person-to-person contact. As a result, in-flight services and even services provided on the ground have been gutted. But, while this first-hand account paints a bleak picture, it shouldn’t necessarily deter you from traveling.
Staying Healthy While Traveling by Air During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Concerns surrounding travel and the COVID-19 pandemic are entirely valid and understandable. However, many of these concerns are being addressed by airlines, airports, and other companies and organizations. Additionally, travelers can take specific measures to mitigate the risk of being exposed to COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. Here’s what travelers can do to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while traveling by air.
First and foremost, testing is critical in preventing the spread of COVID-19. Identifying cases of COVID-19 combined with rigorous contract tracing can drastically improve the current situation related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The United States’ COVID-19 testing efforts have come a long way in the past few months. Tests are more accessible than ever. But, should you get a test?
Tests are typically reserved for individuals reporting symptoms of COVID-19. However, you should still be able to receive a COVID-19 test if you suspect you have been exposed to the virus. To get a test, simply Google “COVID testing in my area.” You will be presented with a list of nearby testing locations. If you have insurance, you will not have to pay for tests, even at private healthcare facilities like urgent care clinics. If you do not have health insurance, check your local government’s website for guidance on how to receive a free test. Most states and cities have established at least one free test facility.
If you sat close to other passengers on a crowded aircraft or visited a COVID-19 hotspot, seeking out a test is a good idea. Be sure to contact your healthcare provider if you have questions regarding testing for COVID-19.
Physical or social distancing is essential in preventing the spread of COVID-19. This means that, as you travel through airports and board aircraft, you should minimize any close contact with other travelers. Current guidelines state that you should remain at least 6 feet away from other individuals at all times. Whether you’re waiting in line at security, in line at a restaurant, or boarding an aircraft, you should always ensure that there is a gap of at least 6 feet between travelers in front and behind you.
Airlines are not required to block middle seats or restrict passenger capacity. Early studies indicate that blocking middle seats is somewhat effective at reducing the spread of COVID-19. However, you don’t have to book a flight on an airline that blocks middle seats as long as other precautionary measures are taken. For travelers that will only book with airlines blocking middle seats, a list of airlines that are blocking middle seats is available below.
Wear a Mask
Wear a mask. This goes without saying but, if you are around other people, you should wear a mask. Masks are an effective way to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Be sure to wear a mask at all times when traveling. This includes on the ground at airports, in-flight, when taking ground transportation, and when passing through public spaces at hotels. We’ve included a few top travel-friendly masks below.
Keep Nearby Surfaces Clean
If you are sitting down at an airport restaurant, in an airline lounge, or taking your seat on-board your flight, you should try to sanitize the surfaces around you. You don’t need to conduct a deep clean. However, you should still take a sanitizing wipe to surfaces including;
- Seat-back pockets
- Tray tables
Be sure that you are using products that contain an active ingredient known to kill viruses like COVID-19. Using products that do not contain ingredients that kill COVID-19 can do more harm than good. We’ve included a list of some travel-friendly products that include ingredients known to kill COVID-19 and similar viruses.
The College Points previously outlined ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and reduce transmission of the virus. For more information and tips for traveling during the COVID-19, check out this post.
The Bottom Line
COVID-19 has completely changed how we travel. Air travel will likely never be the same. After traveling through a handful of the United States’ largest airports, the on-going pandemic’s impact on air travel is apparent. However, travelers that wish to get back on the road or in the sky should not be deterred from doing so. Taking precautionary measures like those outlined above significantly reduces the risk of spreading or contracting COVID-19.
This is post is related to the on-going COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) global pandemic. Please refer to local officials and reputable organizations for the latest information on the COVID-19 pandemic. For the latest resources and news related to the COVID-19 virus and global pandemic, please visit the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) official website and dedicated COVID-19 landing page.