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You Might Not Catch Coronavirus on an Airplane. But Air Travel Is Still Probably Spreading COVID-19

7 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

It’s a very good time to be a domestic jet-setter on a budget. JetBlue’s fall sale, which took place in early August, featured 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-get-one sale, a deal more familiar to Payless shoe shoppers than air travelers. United Airlines passengers could recently book themselves a round-trip from Newark, N,J. to Ft. Myers, Fla.—a major viral hotspot—for as little as $6, before taxes and fees hiked the price to a staggering—wait for it—$27. All of this, of course, assumes that you’re willing to risk exposure to COVID-19, a virus that has killed more than 170,000 Americans as of this week.

These deals exist because of a variety of reasons that have combined to send the U.S. aviation industry into bizarro mode. First and foremost, airlines are hurting badly. Air travel is down about 66%, judging by the number of people who passed through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints on Aug. 16 compared to the same number from a year prior; the four biggest U.S. airlines lost a combined $10 billion between April and June, the Associated Press reports.

Second, many airlines have only survived and avoided mass layoffs because they took pandemic-specific grants and loans from the federal government as part of the CARES Act, passed in March. Airlines that took that money are forbidden from mass layoffs until October; a fall bloodbath is likely.

Finally, the airlines that took those loans also agreed to maintain a certain level of service regardless of passenger demand, and carriers figure that if they have to fly some routes anyway, they might as well try to make some money in the process, even if it’s just $6. (The government has since relaxed at least some of those service requirements.)

Airlines across the U.S. have made a big deal of what they’re doing to keep individual passengers safe while aboard their aircraft. All the major carriers require passengers to wear masks, some aren’t selling middle seats, and they are cleaning more thoroughly 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 cabin air is continually refreshed (that said, many epidemiologists say they, personally, don’t feel comfortable taking the risk of flying right now).

But so far, the U.S. aviation industry has said little about the macro-level threat of people spreading the virus around the country via air travel—the business of offering cheap tickets during a global pandemic is one thing, the ethics are another. COVID-19 came to the U.S. on airplanes, and the global viral picture would surely look different if it weren’t for modern air travel, which lets a person reach San Francisco or Seattle from Wuhan, China in the blink of an eye relative to, say, a steamship.

“The chance that any specific individual who boards a plane is sat next to an infected host and contracts the virus is low,” says Dr. Robin Thompson, a mathematical epidemiologist at Oxford University who has researched air travel’s role in viral outbreaks. “However, when many individuals travel, the probability that some infections occur—and the risk that the virus is transported between countries by any of those individuals—is no longer negligible.”

Similarly, the ability to fly from one corner of the U.S. to another in mere hours is also a public health threat, as travelers can unknowingly bring the virus from hotspots to areas where it’s more under control, potentially sparking a new outbreak. An Aug. 18 ProPublica report based on anonymized location data found that, of 26,000 smartphones identified on the Las Vegas strip in a four-day period in mid-July, some of those same devices were later spotted in every contiguous U.S. state but Maine, underscoring air travel’s unique capability to spread people—and thus a contagion like COVID-19—around the country at great speed and ease.

It’s too early to say for sure how air travel is fueling domestic viral spread in the U.S. relative to other methods of transportation. But states near one another tend to have similar COVID-19 situations, meaning the risk of an infected person sparking a new outbreak by driving to a neighboring state is probably much lower than the risk of doing so by that person flying across the country.

Meanwhile, while U.S. airlines are offering round-trip flights to viral hotspots for less than the cost of an Uber to the airport, foreign carriers are dramatically reducing service to cities with known outbreaks—flights to Auckland, New Zealand, for instance, were scaled back in mid-August after a new outbreak there of fewer than 100 cases. “This U.S. government, unlike governments around the world, has basically set it up so that airlines, and most other businesses, are engaged in a free-for-all,” says Brian Sumers, senior aviation business editor at Skift, a travel industry news site. “It’s all about the economy, and nobody’s thinking about the social or ethical ramifications of decisions about airline capacity.”

Absent government requirements to do so, it’s unreasonable to expect U.S. airlines to trim their service in the interest of public health. They are corporate enterprises beholden to shareholders, and while it makes good business sense for them to focus on individual passenger safety to convince people it’s safe for them to fly again, there’s little incentive for them to care all that much about big-picture public health. The 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 airplanes, they want to make some money, and if the best way that they can make a little bit of money is to offer $27 round-trip fares to Florida, they’re going to do it,” says Sumers. Furthermore, the CARES Act’s service requirements were set early in the U.S. outbreak. The viral landscape has changed since then, and, in some cases, airlines are more or less mandated to fly to what have since become viral hotspots.

But what is reasonable is for airlines to rethink the wisdom of offering cheap-as-chips flights during a deadly pandemic that shows few signs of ebbing. Moreover, the U.S. aviation industry, which has gotten only limited pandemic guidance from the federal government, “needs some kind of safe-travel protocol,” says Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and president of Atmosphere Research Group. He points to countries like France, which is requiring inbound international passengers to be tested for COVID-19.

Of course, mass passenger testing is harder to do for domestic U.S. travelers, given their sheer volume; nearly 800 million people flew within the U.S. in 2018, compared to just over 200 million international passengers. And like so many other problems presented by the pandemic, this one, too, comes back to testing—with delays mounting across the country and results all but useless by the time they arrive, there’s simply no way to ensure that everybody getting on board an airplane right now is truly free of the virus. Many U.S. airlines are requiring passengers to self-certify their health, but there’s no guarantee people will be honest about their condition.

“As long as people are not required to prove that they’re in good health before they travel, there’s a risk that someone could get on a plane, and perhaps not infect anybody on that plane, but infect somebody at the destination,” says Harteveldt.

Correction, Aug. 21

The original version of this story misstated the U.S. state where smartphones were not spotted after appearing on the Las Vegas strip. It was Maine, not Hawaii.

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