Daydreaming about where you’ll travel next is a popular pastime, but during the pandemic, many people’s desire to get back in the air went into overdrive. And airlines have been doing their best to get passengers back flying through the sky after a rough year on their bottom lines.
Here in the DC region, Reagan National Airport saw a loss of nearly $90 million in operating income as of September 2020 (compared to the previous year). At Dulles International Airport, the loss was more than $115 million in that same timeframe.
Nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there were about 390,000 domestic flights scheduled in November 2020 (the most recent data available at press time). In November 2019, there were more than 655,000, equating to a nearly 40% percent year-over-year decrease.
But despite those statistics, analysts predict that travel will start to come back slowly in 2021 and eventually make a full recovery.
“I suspect that you’ll see a pretty rapid return to leisure travel,” says futurist Robert Moran. “[Travelers] have had some time to think about where they’d like to jet off to.”
Leisure travel, he says, will be one of the biggest components to helping the industry rebound, as business travel may be slow to make a full return, if it ever does.
“When I fly, I make sure to bring my own cleaning products, like Lysol wipes, to clean areas around me.”
“Society is now more accepting of Zoom calls. People are going to still do business travel, but getting onto that commuter flight to New York and coming back the same day, that won’t happen as much,” he notes.
Another important piece of the puzzle? Like everything post-pandemic, it comes down to trust.
“I think of this as a three-part process for the passenger: trust, peace of mind and control,” says Ricki Reichard, the American Airlines regional director for the East Coast.
In the DMV, the airlines have worked to instill that trust by implementing robust safety protocols. At both Reagan National and Dulles International airports, protocols include the installation of hundreds of hand sanitizer dispensers, plexiglass barriers at key customer touch points such as ticket counters, moving economy parking to terminal garages so no one has to take a shuttle and providing free masks at information stands.
United Airlines, which has a hub at Dulles, has recently been using electrostatic sprayers both inside their planes and at their Dulles terminals, as well as their terminals in 34 other airports.
American Airlines, which has a hub at Reagan National, has worked with a health advisory panel that includes experts from Vanderbilt University Medical Center, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and their own in-house medical director.
The airline requires passengers to prove that they have had a recent negative COVID test before they can board and have created a mobile health passport called Verifly for international passengers to use to show that they have had that test. It also offers another tool where customers can check where they are traveling to and from and view various COVID policies that are in place at their destinations. American Airlines also provides an online app, LetsGetChecked, for passengers to coordinate testing prior to any flights. Thousands of customers have used it so far, Reichard says.
Surprisingly, the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that the risk of contracting COVID during air travel is lower than from an office building, classroom, supermarket or commuter train.
Part of the reason is that the airflow in a typical commercial jet enters the cabin from overhead inlets and flows downward toward floor-level outlets.
But safety measures like masks and social distancing are frequently hard to enforce, especially when travelers are being given food and drink and have to remove their masks.
Doug Owens is a federal government employee based in DC with family in the Seattle area.
He has done five trips to Seattle since March 2020, which is an 11-hour round-trip flight, traveling mostly on Alaska Airlines. “When I fly, I make sure to bring my own cleaning products, like Lysol wipes, to clean areas around me,” he says.
The jet is usually about one-third to a half full, Owens says, and he usually has a whole row to himself. But sometimes, they keep the middle seat open and put someone in the aisle or window seat.
New air is circulated into the cabin about every three seconds through HEPA filters on the airline, he says. Masks are mandatory. “The upsetting part of it is that when they serve drinks or food, people take their masks off,” he says. He brings his own food on the flight instead of eating airline food, which gives him some peace of mind. “People comply with masks for the most part, but not social distancing,” he says. “They bunch up in the gate area. Same thing when the plane lands, when they crowd up the aisles.”
He says that he still showers right after a flight as well. “As soon as I got to my destination, the first thing I did was strip off all my clothing and shower before I did anything else. I made sure my clothes were in a hamper away from everything else, and then [I] showered and put on fresh clothes,” he says. “I will be very happy when I can get a vaccine.”
After the Pandemic
- What will change: With virtual meetings now the norm, business travel likely won’t fully rebound; airlines may require vaccination proof.
- What will return to normal: Leisure travel is projected to return to pre-pandemic levels in the next few years.