Why Empty Middle Seats Probably Won’t Be the New Normal

Inside the forward section of a TWA Lockheed Constellation

By Kurt Stolz on 14 May 2020
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Full flights with few empty seats are making headlines but they probably aren’t the norm today. Yet.

Meanwhile, over half of all passenger aircraft in the United States are grounded amidst the coronavirus pandemic and, as more passengers are starting to return to the skies, the days of empty airliners may soon be over.

The number of people who traversed the nation’s security checkpoints on Friday reached the highest number in six weeks, 215,244, but it’s only 8% of the 2.6 million who flew on the same date one year earlier.

Ironically, it was only four or so months ago that airlines expecting a banner year.

An American Airlines 737-800 interior

Who’s taking to the skies? It’s a mixture of people who can’t resist a cheap flight, those who are visiting friends and relatives who were cut off from family members during the worst of the pandemic, and some intrepid business travelers

Earlier in the week, United Airlines, while emphasizing that most flights are half full if that, said it will warn passengers if a flight is near capacity, and it will allow the passenger to rebook on another flight.

Still, the age-old question remains, albeit with a new twist: How safe are the skies?

All major U.S. airlines from American to Delta to JetBlue to Southwest are requiring passengers to wear masks at the gate, during boarding, and on the aircraft, but enforcement once the flight pushes back will be less stringent as flight attendants are being told to merely encourage recalcitrant passengers. Pilots have been advised that those passengers who refuse to wear a mask in flight will not be considered disruptive or a “Threat Level 1,” which would require the plane to divert or land to off-load the passenger.

The industry is also not promising that every middle seat will be empty, either.

In the House of Representatives, several congressmen maintain that there is great inconsistency in airline rules and they are calling for federal agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration to act to maintain social distancing on flights. Only one airline – Frontier – is taking checking passengers for fevers at the gate, although experts maintain that taking a person’s temperature is far from foolproof when it comes to diagnosing Covid-19.

Industry experts point out that passengers are safer on airplanes, given the air exchange rate, than in most enclosed public spaces.  Airlines for America, a trade group representing major U.S. carriers, is promoting the idea of having Transportation Security Administration agents check passenger temperatures during the security screening process, but doing so could give false assurances as the process would not detect asymptomatic passengers nor those still in the incubation period.

A low-grade fever of 100.4° F (38° C) is considered a symptom of the novel coronavirus along with fatigue and a dry cough, but it could be indicative of many other illnesses as well.

Temperature checks also don’t take into consideration the fact that an individual could have taken a pain relief medicine such as aspirin or Tylenol, which also treats fever.

Pan Am was a casualty of airline deregulation in the U.S.

In order to remain in business, airlines need to at least break even and currently they are losing billions.  American Airlines, the world’s largest carrier, recently said it is burning through cash at a rate of $70 million a day. In sum, U.S. airlines are losing $350 million to $400 million a day as expenses like payroll, rent, and aircraft leases and maintenance costs far exceed the revenue they are bringing in.

In short, if airlines are to keep middle seats open for social distancing – something that many experts don’t even believe is sufficient – travelers can expect to pay as much as 50% more for their flights in the months ahead.

Still much of the world remains closed to outsiders and no vaccine is expected to be widely available for many months, so it will take several years before airlines operate as many flights as they did at the beginning of the year.  When people do start taking to the skies in droves, they will find an industry transformed.  Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun said earlier in the week that he expects one major U.S. carrier to go out of business as a result of the crisis, and lesser crises – from industry deregulation to recession to terrorist attacks – sank more than a few that were some of the most iconic brands in the industry, including Pan American World Airways and Trans World Airlines.

Jonathan Spira contributed reporting to this story.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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