Even if airlines can convince people their planes are safe from COVID-19, their CEOs say they won't recover until the pandemic ends

  • Airlines are doing virtually everything possible to keep passengers safe from the coronavirus during flights, and it seems to be working.
  • But air travel demand is still very low, because people will not return to traveling until they have safe, fully reopened places to go.
  • That won't be the case until a COVID-19 vaccine has been widely distributed.
  • Airlines have one glimmer of hope, but unfortunately, it's also the least lucrative market of traveler.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

A new study shows that there is virtually no real risk of catching COVID-19 on an airplane.

But while such results would seem great news for airlines that have been racked by decimated travel demand since the early months of the pandemic, those inside the industry say that safety inside their aircraft isn't nearly enough to bring back their customers. 

The study, co-sponsored by the Department of Defense and United Airlines, found that when passengers are seated and wearing masks, only 0.003% of infected air particles could enter another passenger's breathing area, even when every seat is filled. It reinforces earlier evidence that transmission on board is rare and unlikely.

And it seems to give credence to efforts by US carriers to enhance safety on planes in an effort to boost passenger confidence. Airlines including United have vastly expanded their cleaning and sanitization practices, and some, like Delta and Southwest, have blocked middle seats to enable a degree of social distancing.

It's worth noting that the paper has come under scrutiny, first with some consumers questioning the findings given the obvious conflict of interest that comes with an airline's sponsorship, and later with experts suggesting flaws in both this study and another campaign undertaken by a coalition of planemakers and the International Air Transport Association, a global trade group.

Those concerns aren't what make the paper's findings nearly irrelevant to the industry's near-term prospects. 

As travel demand holds steady at just 30% of 2019 levels, it's becoming increasingly obvious that the airlines' efforts will only make so much of a difference when it comes to bringing business-as-usual back on board.

Clean planes aren't enough

The real problem for the airlines is that there's just about nowhere to go.

COVID-19 cases are spiking around the US and the world, and a bunch of states have quarantine requirements for incoming travelers. Moreover, many destinations remain at least partially closed. Theaters in New York City will remain shuttered until at least mid-2021. The city's restaurants are operating at 25% capacity, and cold weather will presumably nix eating on sidewalks and patios. California's theme parks remain closed; Orlando's have limited capacity. The bars, shops, museums, and other attractions that lead people to travel for fun simply aren't available.

Most business travel, meanwhile — which typically makes up just 15-20% of the big three airlines' passenger loads, but 50% of their revenue — is on hold. Big events like conventions won't happen anytime soon, and companies are unwilling to risk their employees' health or the liability, not to mention the expense of business travel in a weakened economy.

And of course, international travel is all but nonexistent, with only essential workers and legal residents able to cross most countries' borders. Hope that travel corridors or extensive testing could facilitate a return of longhaul flying remains just that — hope.

This is why the folks running the airlines predict that travel demand will not return to 2019 levels until 2023 or 2024. And the conditions that will allow that bounce back are out of their control. 

"Timing [of a recovery] has more to do with the state of the virus and the medical containment of it than it does any specific a strategy that we could deploy to make certain everybody stays safe," Delta CEO Ed Bastian on a call with investors last week. "Because the goal in this is that we want to eliminate quarantines."

United CEO Scott Kirby struck the same note. "Even if you're completely safe on an airplane, you have to have a reason to go," he said during his airline's call with investors. "Disneyland needs to be open or your clients need to be accepting visitors in the office before you can go. That's why we think demand isn't going to get back – won't get above 50% until there's a widely available vaccine."

Kirby also said he expects most that demand to be leisure-oriented, rather than business travel, although he holds out hope for the eventual return of business travel.

"We fully expect that business travel is going to get back on the road someday when the vaccine is out there and widely distributed," he said. "The first time someone loses a sale to a competitor who showed up in person is the last time they tried to make a sales call on Zoom."

One bright spot as airlines try to get some demand back before this is all over

The one area of travel where there is some opportunity is a segment of leisure travel known as VFR, or "visiting friends and relatives".

People looking to travel and see their families and friends after months apart are less likely to care about restaurants being shuttered, and are more likely to tolerate quarantine requirements, especially if they can spend that time at a relative's home.

This sort of travel is likely to be the first international flying to resume, with some dual citizens or residents already making journeys to see loved ones.

United Airlines is among those betting on that demand, especially in the coming year as testing ideally helps loose restrictions. And it's making a play to capture as much of it as it can. "It's a different traveler than what you find flying to London Heathrow or Tokyo," the airline's head of international route planning, Patrick Quayle, told Business Insider in September. "There's a strong dynamic of people going home or people who live there coming to United States to visit relatives who are here."

Meanwhile, United added routes to Latin America and the Caribbean as countries including Mexico, Costa Rica, and Honduras begin to allow Americans to enter, primarily focused on the leisure market.

Delta, too, is adjusting based on leisure demand.

During last week's earnings call, airline president Glen Hauenstein said that the airline was "tactically managing" its network, "increasing capacity around the peak leisure holiday periods like Thanksgiving and Christmas, while reducing it during off-peak periods like Halloween and the election week."

Ultimately, a good indicator of exactly what kind of recovery airlines can expect is just a few weeks away. Although Thanksgiving-period bookings are down significantly from this time in 2019, travelers are expected to book fairly last minute based on the situation on the ground.

If bookings remain low and eager travelers do not fly to see family for the holiday, it will mean that even the one bright spot will remain dark — no matter how well airlines can clean the planes.

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