Coronavirus pandemic is reshaping air travel as carriers struggle

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In a bid to survive, airlines are desperate to convince a wary public that measures like mandatory face masks and hospital-grade air filters make sitting on an airplane safer than many other environments. interiors during the coronavirus pandemic.

It does not work.

Polls indicate that instead of feeling comfortable with air travel, more and more people are becoming skeptical about it. In the United States, airline bookings have stagnated over the past month after increasing slowly – a reaction to a new wave of reported viral infections.

Globally, air travel is down more than 85% from last year, according to industry figures.

The implications for the airline industry are serious. Several major carriers have already filed for bankruptcy protection and if the expected collection is delayed much longer, the list will grow.

RELATED: What’s the Risk of Flying During the Coronavirus Pandemic?

The four largest US airlines together lost $ 10 billion from April to June. Their CEOs say they will survive, but they have lowered their expectations for a rebound.

“We were all hoping that in the fall the virus could run its course,” said Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines. “Obviously, this turned out to be totally wrong. ”

When Consumer Reports asked more than 1,000 people in June about their comfort with various activities during the pandemic, 70% said flying was very or somewhat dangerous. They felt it was safer to go to a hospital emergency room or stand in line to vote.

In a survey commissioned by an airline trade group, travelers’ biggest concern was the possibility of sitting next to an infected person.

John Kontak, a schoolteacher from Phoenix, said it was his fear as soon as he boarded a crowded American Airlines flight this summer to visit his parents in Ohio.

“I don’t know anything about that person who is sitting a foot away from me,” Kontak said. “They took the bottom line or the dollar on passenger safety. Next time I’d rather go back to Ohio than fly – it’s safer because I can control it.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says sitting within 2 meters of other passengers, often for hours, can increase your risk of contracting COVID-19. But the CDC also notes that most viruses and other germs don’t spread easily on flights because of the way the air circulates on planes.

Standard & Poor’s said this week that the outlook for the industry has gone “from bad to worse”, with global air traffic falling 70% this year. In May, S&P said a 55% drop was the worst-case scenario.

“It will be a slower and more uneven recovery than one might expect,” said Philip Baggaley, analyst at S&P.

An air trade group, the International Air Transport Association, predicts that carriers will lose $ 84 billion this year, making it the worst year in industry history. The group says the traffic will not fully recover until 2024.

Brandon Wilson, owner of AvidJet, disinfects a Frontier plane with a fogger at Denver International Airport on Tuesday, May 6, 2020 (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz / MediaNews Group / The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Asia, where outbreaks were brought under control earlier, is doing better than the United States and Europe. Domestic travel in China is down to about two-thirds of its level of a year ago. In the United States, traffic is below a third of 2019 levels.

Air traffic at more than 500 European airports fell, down 94% in June from the same month last year. There were around 4 million passengers, up from 217 million a year earlier.

Travel accelerated when more than two dozen European countries opened their borders to each other in early July, but cases of the virus are increasing in several countries, leading to a reintroduction of restrictions. This week, the UK imposed a 14-day quarantine requirement on travelers – even returning Britons – from France and the Netherlands. Travel from outside of Europe, including the United States, is still limited.

In the United States, traffic recovered after collapsing 95% in April, but stagnated – 74% in July, 72% in August.

Airlines have entered this crisis in the best financial shape ever, thanks to growing demand for travel, reduced competition through mergers and billions raised through additional fees.

Among international carriers, the major state-backed airlines are almost certain to survive. In Asia and the Middle East, they are often seen as essential contributors to the global economy. Likewise, major European carriers like Lufthansa, Air France-KLM and British Airways may be too big to give up.

It’s too late for UK-based Flybe; it closed in March. Latin America’s two largest airlines, Avianca and Latam, have filed for bankruptcy. Just like Aeromexico. Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia, both part of British mogul Richard Branson’s corporate galaxy, are using the courts to reset their debts.

In the United States, Trans States and Compass, which flew smaller planes for major airlines, and Alaska-based Ravn Air, shut down, but the major airlines survived on billions of government aid and billions more in private borrowing.

RELATED: Southwest Airlines No Longer Clean Armrests, Seat Belts Between Flights

American airlines have tried to reassure travelers about the safety of planes. They require passengers to wear face masks and clean the cabins more thoroughly, even spraying the seats with an antimicrobial mist.

“You can smell the cleaning mist that has been done, and everything is basically wiped up and down – the chairs, the blinds, even the light switches and hanging bins,” said Jason Bounds, a flight attendant. veteran at Delta Air Lines.

The airlines are divided on one point. Delta, Southwest, JetBlue and Alaska leave some seats empty to create room between passengers. United, American and Spirit do not, arguing that social distancing is not possible on a plane.

Most flights have a lot of empty seats, but scenes of full planes alarm travelers.

Carol Braddick, a business coach and consultant who divides her time between Phoenix and England, was so worried about the American Airlines portion of her trip to the UK that she sought a COVID-19 test after arriving.

“The person I was sitting next to was drinking nonstop, shouting at his friend a row behind him; they were screaming back and forth, ”Braddick said. “The combination of alcohol, yelling and no mask is unacceptable, and the flight attendant did nothing.”

Braddick has postponed his plans for a few short vacation trips to Europe this summer.

“The new reality for us is less travel, longer stays and being a lot more selective about which airline we’re going to fly,” she said.

Even frequent travelers like Seth Miller, who writes about travel on his website PaxEx.aero, blend in.

“Although I love and miss the trip, it just doesn’t feel like it’s worth the risk,” he said.

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