5 Things We Know About Flying Right Now

As passengers cautiously return to air travel, there are a few issues worth considering — from middle-seat policies to questions about virus transmission on airlines.

The number of fliers passing through T.S.A. checkpoints has recently increased substantially since the pandemic began. Above, George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston.
The number of fliers passing through T.S.A. checkpoints has recently increased substantially since the pandemic began. Above, George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston.Credit...Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

After passenger numbers plummeted earlier this year, air travel has taken a significant step forward. On Aug. 16, nearly 863,000 fliers 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 percent 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 percent drop in April.

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

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 in the air. United Airlines was the sole holdout.

Now, American has joined United in selling all available seats on its planes 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 fliers from a previously canceled flight. JetBlue has extended its open-middle-seat policy through Oct. 15, and Delta is leaving adjacent seats open through Sept. 30.

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 airlines in the United States, says that as of Aug. 9, flights are running about 47 percent full, versus 88 percent 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.

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, the founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, 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 the airfare prediction app Hopper, the current average price for a round-trip domestic ticket is $176, down 38 percent compared to 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 back the number of flights to consolidate traffic. Mr. 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 to last year, had nine flights on this 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 to Tampa, Fla., 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 the past 22 weeks and found most recently that perennial destinations like Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla., remain high on the list of where people want to go, both before and during the pandemic. 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, the chief executive of Destination Analysts.

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

“They are staying firm,” Ms. 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.”

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 from $75 in October, goes to $356 the week of the holiday.

This year, of course, is like no other, and the number of college students studying from home or families fearful of gatherings may depress holiday travel. Hopper found prices are 30 percent lower presently than they were in 2019 for Thanksgiving travel, with an average round-trip domestic ticket at $216.

At this point, airlines haven’t 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). Delta and United are waiving change fees on new bookings through Aug. 31, though travel may take place later. Alaska’s waiver runs through Sept. 8. American has extended its waiver 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, the 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,” Ms. Berg said.

Flying back recently from his second home in Tucson, Ariz., 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 flier, who ignored him, to cover up. He next tried the flight attendant, who would not help. The back of the plane was full, too, 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 percent. (Southwest doesn’t have a first or business class; JetBlue is blocking six of 16 seats in its forward-class Mint cabins.) Fliers opting for the upgrade on other carriers — sometimes at very attractive prices — may very 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 Mr. Hobica, the Airfarewatchdog.com 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,” Mr. Hobica said.

Megan Solis, a teacher in Chicago, bought three $450 round-trip tickets in business class on United in 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.

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

German researchers recently published a study in the JAMA Network on a group of 24 tourists in March who were unwittingly exposed to Covid-19 in Israel a week before flying to Frankfurt on a four-hour-and-40-minute flight carrying 102 passengers. They found two likely cases of virus transmission on the flight, both seated within two rows of an infected passenger. Notably, no one was wearing masks on this flight, which took place before that public health mandate was adopted by airlines beginning in May in the United States.

On June 8, when The New York Times surveyed 511 epidemiologists about when they would travel again by airplane, the largest contingent, 44 percent, 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 P.R. 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 four-in-five chance.

He found that on a fully loaded flight, the chance of contracting Covid-19 was one in 4,300. If the middle seat is empty, the risk falls to one 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 one per 400,000 passengers on full flights and one 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,” Mr. Barnett said, granting that an open seat doesn’t give you the recommended six 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.

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