Airlines say it’s safe to fly. But what about the viral spread?

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isIt’s a great time to be a household jet setter on a budget. JetBlue’s fall sale, which took place in early August, offered tickets as low as $ 20 for trips between New York City and Detroit or Los Angeles to Las Vegas. Alaska Airlines recently offered a “buy one for one” sale, an offer more familiar to buyers of Payless shoes than to airline travelers. United Airlines passengers were recently able to book a roundtrip from Newark, N, J. to Ft. Myers, Fla. – a major viral hotspot – for as little as $ 6, before taxes and fees. don’t raise the price to a staggering price – wait – $ 27. All of this, of course, assumes you’re willing to risk exposure to COVID-19, a virus that has killed more than 170,000 Americans this week.
These agreements exist for a variety of reasons which have combined to send the US aviation industry into bizarre fashion. First and foremost, the airlines are suffering badly. Air travel is down about 66%, judging by the number of people who passed through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints on August 16 compared to the same number the previous year; America’s four largest airlines together lost $ 10 billion between April and June, reports the Associated Press. Second, many airlines only survived and avoided mass layoffs because they took pandemic-specific grants and loans from the federal government under the CARES Act, passed in March. Airlines that took that money are banned from mass layoffs until October; an autumn bloodbath is likely.
Finally, the airlines that have taken out these loans have also agreed to maintain a certain level of service regardless of passenger demand, and the carriers feel that if they have to take certain routes anyway, they might as well try to make money in the process, even if it’s just $ 6. (The government has since relaxed at least some of these service requirements.)

Airlines across the United States have done a lot to ensure the safety of individual passengers on board their planes. All major carriers require passengers to wear masks, some don’t sell middle seats and they clean deeper and more often. And at least some experts say it’s safe for individuals to fly without fear of contracting COVID-19 on an airplane, in part because the cabin air is continually being refreshed (that said, many epidemiologists say that ‘they, personally, don’t feel comfortable taking the risk of stealing at this time).
But so far, the US aviation industry has said little about the macro-level threat of people spreading the virus across the country by air – offering cheap tickets during a global pandemic is one thing. ethics is another. COVID-19 has arrived in the United States by air, and the global viral picture would surely be different if it weren’t for modern air travel, which allows a person to reach San Francisco or Seattle from Wuhan, China in the blink of an eye compared to, say, a steamboat.
“The chance that a specific person who boards an airplane will sit next to an infected host and contract the virus is low,” says Dr Robin Thompson, a mathematical epidemiologist at the University of Oxford who has studied the role of air transport in viral epidemics. “However, when many people travel, the likelihood of certain infections occurring – and the risk that the virus will be carried between countries by one of those people – is no longer negligible.”
Likewise, the ability to fly from one corner of the United States to another in just a few hours is also a threat to public health, as travelers can unknowingly transport the virus from hot spots to areas. where it is no longer under control, which could trigger a new epidemic. An Aug. 18 ProPublica report based on anonymized location data found that out of 26,000 smartphones identified on the Las Vegas Strip during a four-day period in mid-July, some of those same devices were subsequently spotted in all contiguous U.S. states except Hawaii, highlighting the unique ability of air travel to spread people – and therefore contagion like COVID-19 – across the country at high speed and with ease.
It is too early to say for sure how air travel is fueling the domestic viral spread in the United States compared to other modes of transport. But states that are close to each other tend to have similar COVID-19 situations, which means the risk of an infected person triggering a new outbreak by traveling to a neighboring state is likely much lower than the risk. to do it by that person flying across the country.

Meanwhile, as U.S. airlines offer round-trip flights to viral hotspots for less than the cost of an Uber to the airport, foreign carriers are drastically cutting service to cities where outbreaks are occurring. known – flights to Auckland, New Zealand, for example, have been increased. back in mid-August after another outbreak of less than 100 cases. “This US government, unlike governments around the world, basically put it in place for airlines, and most other businesses, to commit to a free-for-all program,” says Brian Sumers, editor. aviation business at Skift, a travel industry. news site. “It’s all about the economy and no one is thinking about the social or ethical ramifications of decisions about airline capacity.”

In the absence of government obligations to do so, it is unreasonable to expect U.S. airlines to cut services in the interest of public health. These are companies that are beholden to shareholders, and while it makes sense for them to focus on the safety of individual passengers to convince people that it is safe for them to fly again, there is little incentive to do so. be as concerned with public health as a whole. . Airlines are fighting for their lives, after all, and it’s important to keep in mind that they support at least 10 million jobs, according to Airlines for America, a trade group. “Their businesses have been decimated, they’re just trying to survive, they have all these planes, they want to make money, and if the best way to make some money is to offer round-trip fares of $ 27. $ in Florida, they’re going to do it, ”Sumers says. Additionally, the CARES Act service requirements were established early in the outbreak in the United States. The viral landscape has since changed, and in some cases airlines are more or less mandated to fly to what have since become viral hotspots.
But what is It is reasonable for airlines to rethink the wisdom of offering cheap flights during a deadly pandemic that shows few signs of ebbing. In addition, the US aviation industry, which has received only limited pandemic advice from the federal government, “needs some sort of safe travel protocol,” says Henry Harteveldt, analyst for the United States. travel industry and chairman of the Atmosphere Research Group. He cites countries like France, which requires inbound international passengers to be tested for COVID-19.
Of course, bulk passenger testing is more difficult for US domestic travelers, given their volume; nearly 800 million people flew in the United States in 2018, compared to just over 200 million international passengers. And like so many other issues with the pandemic, this one is also coming back to testing – with increasing delays across the country and nearly useless results by the time they arrive, there is simply no way to s ‘ensuring everyone is on a plane right now is truly virus free. Many US airlines require passengers to self-certify their health, but there is no guarantee that people will be honest about their condition.
“As long as people aren’t required to prove that they are healthy before traveling, there is a risk that someone could get on a plane, and maybe not infect anyone on that plane, but infect someone at destination, ”says Harteveldt.

Write to Alex Fitzpatrick at [email protected]

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