Air travel trends on the move

Air travel has been in the crosshairs of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether it has been plummeting bookingsnew airline ticket change policies or the federal transportation mask mandates, airlines and their passengers have been subject to a series of disruptive events that have changed the air travel experience. 

We know where we have been during the worst of pandemic. The bigger question is where are we heading from here, as the virus becomes endemic? 

Passenger loads are up

Air traffic is up. In April 2022, more than 63 million passengers passed through aviation security checkpoints, the highest passenger numbers dating back to pre-pandemic levels. This represents over 90 percent of the April 2019 passenger screening volume. Airlines are taking advantage of this surge in demand, with higher airfares. Jet fuel prices are also higher compared to last year, although they are down over the past month. With the busy summer travel season just before us, airlines will balance the economics of supply and demand to push airfares higher and adjust capacity to return to profitability.  

Face masks are down

The federal court ruling on the transportation face mask mandate means that face masks are now optional on airplanes, trains and public transportation. The difficulty with any mandate is enforcement, which on airplanes was left to flight attendants — not an ideal situation for them. Air rage was at unprecedented levels on flights in 2021, with 70 percent of incidents associated with passenger reaction to the face mask mandate. Now that masks are optional, every flight will contain of mixture of passengers who are wearing a mask and those who are not, creating a new potential for inflight conflicts.

Airlines should give serious consideration to temporarily sequestering passengers into seats based on their intention to wear a mask, much like how airlines once had smoking and nonsmoking sections to accommodate passenger preferences. This may help reduce anxiety amongst those who choose to wear a face mask, while appeasing those who go maskless by seating them amongst like-minded people.    

COVID-19 infections are up

COVID-19 cases, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have been creeping higher over the past month, with the seven-day moving average now more than double what it was in late March. Yet, these numbers are somewhat misleading since the majority of new infections are not being detected, or when they are detected, are done so with in-home tests that likely never get reported into the national database. This means that there are likely people on many flights that are infected and contagious. With no mandatory face mask barriers to reduce transmission risk, more people will be infected when traveling. Although infection transmission on flights themselves will remain low, due to the air circulation and air filtration systems in place, boarding, deplaning and time spent in airport concourses will become fertile virus transmission environments.  

Children remain vulnerable

The summer travel period will see more children on airplanes, with those under five years old ineligible for the vaccines. Although their outcomes from infections have been mostly benign, they will be more vulnerable during travel with fewer passengers not wearing face masks.

Parents of young children may opt to drive rather than fly. While this may limit interactions with unmasked travelers, driving is statistically riskier than flying in terms of fatality risk, so more children could actually die by such transportation choices.

Airports and airlines must work together to rethink how they manage and protect young travelers in the near term, giving parents the confidence to fly.  

The summer travel period will be laden with packed airplanes amongst travelers paying more for their tickets than they have in several years. It is also unknown whether the Department of Justice’s appeal will be successful to overturn the end of the transportation face mask mandate. It’s likely a safe bet that they will not be, unless some catastrophic events occur that demand such a mandate. 

Air travel will adjust and readjust to a world where a coronavirus will continue to infect and reinfect people. The path forward looks brighter than it has in months, yet clouds of uncertainty may still appear, unannounced. Nothing is certain in such an environment, both in the air and on the ground. How airlines and travelers will respond remains anyone’s guess.  

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a founder professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public policy. He has researched aviation security systems since 1995. His research provided the technical foundations for TSA PreCheck. 

Tags air travel Airlines COVID-19 endemic flights Fuel prices Pandemic Sheldon H. Jacobson travel

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