5 things we know about flying right now

Elaine Glusac, The New York Times

Posted at Aug 26 2020 07:40 AM

Passengers board a Delta Air Lines flight at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, June 1, 2020. Delta has tried to stake a claim as one of the most cautious companies in the industry by promising to leave middle seats empty even as its biggest rivals are selling as many seats as they can. Alyssa Schukar, The New York Times

NEW YORK - After passenger numbers plummeted earlier this year, air travel has taken a significant step forward. On Aug. 16, nearly 863,000 flyers passed through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints around the country, the highest figure since March 17. Though just one-third of last year’s 2.5 million passengers, the traffic is sharply higher than the 87,534 who traveled on April 14 in the depths of the pandemic.

Commercial flights are down 43% in the United States, according to FlightAware.com, a service that tracks flights, but that is the best figure since the pandemic began, and up from a roughly 77% drop in April.

While the future of aviation remains uncertain — the industry is lobbying for more government funding to ward off layoffs and route cuts expected when the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding expires Sept. 30 — here are five things we know about flying now.

THE MIDDLE SEAT SAGA CONTINUES

After the pandemic hit, three of the four biggest airlines in the country — American, Delta and Southwest — vowed to block the sale of middle seats to provide more social distancing. United Airlines was the sole holdout.

Now, American has joined United in selling all available seats as demand allows, while Southwest has extended its commitment to less density through Oct. 31. Alaska Airlines is also blocking middle seats through Oct. 31, though it says it may make exceptions for unforeseen circumstances, such as accommodating flyers from a previously canceled flight. JetBlue has extended its open-middle-seat policy through Oct. 15, and Delta is leaving adjacent seats open through Jan. 6.

If you’re looking for an uncrowded flight, the odds might be in your favor. Airlines for America, the trade group that represents the major U.S. airlines, said that as of Aug. 9, flights were running about 47% full, versus 88% a year ago.

Still, complaints about full flights have continued on social media.

Lee Abbamonte, a travel blogger who lives in New York City, has flown for pleasure and for work during the pandemic, upgrading to business class with points, or sticking to carriers that block middle seats in economy.

“I feel that a little research and legwork can make a big difference in terms of load size,” he wrote in an email. He uses online seat maps to gauge how busy a flight is and recommends flying at off-peak times and midweek for the lightest loads.

LOW FARES MAY NOT BE A BIG ENOUGH LURE

Traditionally, fall is a good time to look for cheap airfares, and this year is no different.

“After Aug. 15, fares go down because college kids and younger children are going back to school,” said George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog, a website that finds flight deals. “They would stay down to Thanksgiving, and then after Thanksgiving to Dec. 14. You could set your almanac by it.”

This year, fares have been low all summer. According to Hopper, an airfare prediction app, the current average price for a round-trip domestic ticket is $176, down 38% compared with the same time last year, when it was $282.

What consumers have gained in savings they may give up in convenience, as airlines have cut the number of flights to consolidate traffic. Hobica cited Delta’s schedule from New York to Miami, which showed just two nonstop flights on a Friday in August. Delta, which is running half of its normal domestic schedule compared with last year, had nine flights on that route last August.

“People will not have the choices that they had as far as schedules, at least nonstop,” he said.

In the current sales season, passengers can fly from as little as $67 round trip from Newark, New Jersey, to Tampa, Florida, on United. Many destinations on American and Southwest are selling for about $100 round trip.

Most sales seem aligned with where travelers say they want to go, which is, generally speaking, away from other people.

Destination Analysts, a travel marketing research firm, has been doing a weekly survey of traveler sentiment for 22 weeks. It found most recently that perennial destinations like Las Vegas and Orlando, Florida, remain high on the list of where people want to go. New to the top 10 list since the virus are places like Colorado and Alaska.

“People still want to go to Seattle and New Orleans, but because of the pandemic we’re seeing Colorado and wilderness destinations edge out those urban experiences,” said Erin Francis-Cummings, chief executive of Destination Analysts.

Still, most of the 1,200 adult U.S. travelers surveyed told the firm that they won’t travel no matter how low the fares go. In the last survey, completed Aug. 9, 70% said that no price cut would be large enough to get them to travel.

“They are staying firm,” Francis-Cummings said, comparing the sentiment to the airline industry’s recovery from the 2008 recession. “Then, discounts were motivational. In the pandemic, a sizable percent are not budging.”

HOLIDAY TRAVEL MAY BE CHEAPER THAN NORMAL

Typically, airlines hike fares beginning the weekend before Thanksgiving in anticipation of the rush to the skies for the holiday. Currently, an American flight from Chicago to Miami that sells for $75 in October goes to $356 the week of the holiday.

This year, the number of college students studying from home or families fearful of gatherings may depress holiday travel. Hopper, the airfare prediction app, found that prices are 30% lower than they were in 2019 for Thanksgiving travel, with an average round-trip domestic ticket at $216.

At this point, only Delta has committed to blocking middle seats past October. Additionally, flexible policies that waive fees for flight cancellations or changes will expire well before the holiday (except at Southwest, which is the only carrier that does not charge a fee for ticket changes). United is waiving change fees on new bookings through Aug. 31, though travel may take place later. Alaska’s waiver runs through Sept. 8. American and Delta have extended their waivers to Sept. 30, and JetBlue to Oct. 15.

“Right now, the priority for airlines is to make prices accessible and terms flexible,” said Hayley Berg, economist at Hopper. “Customers are increasingly prioritizing flexibility in fares and their travel experience over anything else.”

As a result, she advised booking holiday travel now while restrictions are relaxed, if the price is right.

“On the whole, you will pay less than last year, but how much less and when still remains to be seen,” Berg said.

FIRST CLASS DOESN’T NECESSARILY GUARANTEE SPACE

Flying back recently from his second home in Tucson, Arizona, to Chicago, George Fink, who works in finance, upgraded to first class on American, using 55,000 miles for the one-way ticket in hopes of having more space. Instead, he found himself with a seatmate wearing a mask that did not cover his nose. He implored his fellow flyer, who ignored him, to cover up. He next tried the flight attendant, who would not help. The back of the plane was full, making it impossible to move. Then the attendants served a meal.

“That meant everyone in first class took off their masks and ate for half an hour, so all the masking and spacing was for naught,” he said.

Only Delta and Alaska have committed to reducing density in the forward cabin to 50%. (Southwest doesn’t have a first or business class; JetBlue is blocking six of 16 seats in its forward-class Mint cabins.) Flyers opting for the upgrade on other carriers — sometimes at very attractive prices — may well find their wider, more spacious seats just inches from the passengers next to them.

Experts advise looking for airplane configurations that include single seat configurations.

For example, on the Dreamliner that Hobica, the Airfarewatchdog founder, booked from Los Angeles to Newark, the seat configuration in business class was 1-2-1. (Bear in mind that carriers have the right to change aircraft per their contracts of carriage.)

“It’s a good way to fly if you don’t want someone next to you,” Hobica said.

Megan Solis, a teacher in Chicago, bought three $450 round-trip tickets in business class on United for early September so that she and her husband could take her oldest child to college in Boston, using credits from a previously canceled trip. Currently, the last seat in the family’s four-seat row is empty, and they’re hoping it stays that way.

The relatively low fare was secondary in her decision. “I was more comfortable with the space up there, even before I saw the price,” she said.

CALCULATING IN-FLIGHT TRANSMISSION RISKS

While the airlines tout their HEPA filters, which scrub more than 99% of germs in the air, there has been very little data on the risks of catching the coronavirus in-flight, even as evidence emerges that respiratory droplets containing the live virus may linger in the air in indoor spaces. To date, no superspreading events have been traced to a flight.

German researchers recently published a study in the JAMA Network about a group of 24 tourists in March who were unwittingly exposed to COVID-19 in Israel a week before flying to Frankfurt on a 4 1/2-hour flight carrying 102 passengers. They found two likely cases of virus transmission on the flight, both in people seated within two rows of an infected passenger. Notably, no one was wearing masks on the flight, which took place before the public health mandate was adopted by airlines.

On June 8, when The New York Times surveyed 511 epidemiologists about when they would travel again by airplane, the largest contingent, 44%, said in three to 12 months. They deemed other activities, including attending a sporting event, concert, funeral or wedding, as riskier.

The question of whether a middle seat left open would improve a passenger’s odds of not getting sick compelled Arnold Barnett, a statistician and professor of management science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to look into it.

“United said it was a PR strategy and not about safety, whereas Delta went to the other extreme,” he said.

His mathematical model multiplied the number of COVID-19 cases by 10, based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s estimate that the number of undetected cases could be 10 times the known infection rate. He factored in the barrier created by seat backs, the in-flight air purification systems, and the effectiveness of masks in stopping contagion, which he said was about a 4-in-5 chance.

He found that on a fully loaded flight, the chance of contracting COVID-19 was 1 in 4,300. If the middle seat is empty, the risk falls to 1 in 7,700. Taking into account the possibility of spreading the virus to others not on the plane, he estimated the death risk to be 1 per 400,000 passengers on full flights and 1 in 600,000 with open middle seats.

These risks are considerably higher, he said, than the risk of a plane crash but comparable to risks associated with two hours of everyday activities — for instance, grocery shopping — during the pandemic.

“United said there’s no such thing as social distancing on airplanes,” Barnett said, granting that an open seat doesn’t give you the recommended 6 feet of social distancing.

“I do think there’s a difference, and I would rather fly the airlines that are being more cautious in this regard,” he added.