Air travel is slowly making a comeback as more passengers appear to be gaining confidence with airlines that are imposing strict rules for wearing masks.
The uptick in flight activity — 2.3 million passengers this past weekend, up from 1.8 million in late June — comes during the traditional August travel season that is anything but traditional this year.
The boost in weekend travel came as the U.S. saw its smallest daily increase in coronavirus cases in nearly four weeks after hitting an all-time high in July.
Airports and labor unions are hoping to build off the recent momentum in travel by having the federal government impose nationwide policies for facial coverings and social distancing on air travel, while airlines argue they should be able to enforce their own policies.
Experts say either way, enhanced measures are needed to keep passengers coming back and in higher numbers.
“Slowly it will increase, and the airlines are doing their part. They are doing a lot of concessions, they are cleaning the planes very nicely … they will increase the confidence,” said Mahmood A. Khan, professor of hospitality and tourism management at Virginia Tech University.
Major U.S. airlines announced in June that masks were required on flights, but the Federal Aviation Administration has not issued a nationwide mandate.
“The face-covering requirement, along with extraordinary cleaning and sanitation practices, are key components in our multi-layered approach to protecting the well-being of our employees and the traveling public,” said a spokesperson for the industry group Airlines for America (A4A).
Airlines have also started cracking down on passengers.
A Delta Air Lines flight from Detroit to Atlanta returned to the gate July 23 after two travelers refused to wear masks or face coverings. Pro-Trump activist Brandon Straka made headlines in June when he was removed from an American Airlines flight for refusing to wear a mask.
But some lawmakers say passengers shouldn’t have to choose between airlines that have strict policies and those that don’t. Bills introduced in Congress include a measure that would require masks in all airports and on all planes, while another would mandate that the Transportation Security Administration conduct passenger temperature checks.
Union leaders from the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, Air Line Pilots Association International and the Association of Professional Flight Attendants applauded the mask-requirement legislation, calling it a necessary step to ensure passengers comply with policies on facial coverings.
A4A is not backing the bill, arguing the industry shouldn’t be singled out or regulated on this issue because it has taken the right steps. Delta CEO Ed Bastian recently highlighted that more than 100 passengers have been added to the airline's no-fly list because they refused to wear masks on flights.
While passenger volumes have improved in recent months, they’re still a fraction of their pre-pandemic levels.
There are now about 73 percent fewer passengers than a year ago, an improvement from an 87 percent decline experienced at the beginning of June. In late April, passenger volumes were down 96 percent, according to A4A.
Stephen Beck, founder and managing partner at the consulting firm cg42, said airlines are likely to see that it’s in their interest to boost preventive measures for customers.
“I think you’re going to see the airlines investing more in things that help the traveler see the steps they’re taking to do what they can to stamp down transmission or the risk of transmission during the travel journey,” he said.
But there’s only so much airlines can do to allay passenger concerns. Getting back to pre-pandemic confidence levels Khan said, will depend largely on whether there’s a vaccine for COVID-19.
“It is slowly increasing and hopefully once they know there is a vaccine available, many things will change,” he said.
Anthony FauciAnthony FauciSunday shows preview: US reaffirms support for Ukraine amid threat of Russian invasion A newspaper crosses an uncrossable line to 'punish' a class of Americans Bill Maher pushes back on Fauci: 'Don't sit there in your white coat and tell me "just do what we say"' MORE, a member of the White House coronavirus task force and the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, said last week he is “cautiously optimistic” a vaccine will be ready by the end of this year and that 2021 could see wide distribution of the vaccine.
Beck noted that while a vaccine and effective treatments will help consumer confidence, the decision to fly will also be influenced by COVID-19 hospital and mortality rates.
“It’s not just as simple as once there’s a vaccine, we can all get on planes. It’s more complicated than that. Is a vaccine being deployed? Are we seeing outbreaks reduced or diminished? Are we seeing those in tourist areas?” he said.