Obviously we are not traveling now during these lock down days in an effort to flatten the COVID-19 curve. Indeed, it is even difficult to think about planning travel in the current environment. When will it be safe? Where to go? By plane, train or automobile?
In order to get another perspective on what may lie ahead as the nation and the world recovers from the pandemic, today I invited fellow travel expert Johnny Jet DiScala “on board” to my column, virtually of course, for a conversation.
Julie: Good morning Johnny. It’s not often we are simultaneously both in the same time zone, but here we are, sheltering-in-place with our respective families. And while it is no doubt tough to be house bound, at least we are in normally sunny California.
Johnny: This is probably the longest stretch of time I’ve gone in a very long time without leaving the state. But I have to say, overlooking the pandemic momentarily, I’m really enjoying spending so much quality time with my family. We have a roof over our heads, plenty of food and above all, we are all healthy. That’s a lot for which to be grateful.
Julie: Indeed. So assuming you have shined up your crystal ball, when do you think travel will resume in a meaningful way?
Johnny: I think travel will start up slowly but I don’t think things will really go back to normal until there’s a COVID-19 vaccine. I imagine planes, trains and buses filling up to only 20-percent capacity, just as we are seeing now in stores, but that’s just conjecture. Perhaps down the road, if there’s a way to introduce inexpensive rapid testing, where people could be tested before boarding a plane or embarking on a cruise ship, that would be a game changer.
Julie: I love the idea of rapid testing before boarding or embarking, even in the non-pandemic era. Speaking of cruises — and I am a huge fan of 100 to 600-passenger vessels — on April 9 the CDC issued an extended ‘No sail’ order for 100-days for ships operating out of the U.S. that carry over 200 passengers. The original March 14 ‘No sail’ order was initially for 30-days duration. So if the extended order is not rescinded, we are looking at mid-July before those ships can start sailing again. Do you think the public’s image of cruising will be forever damaged?
Johnny: I think the cruising industry has taken an enormous public relations hit. The stories and images of cruisers and crew being trapped at sea, many with COVID-19 symptoms, is going to have a lasting effect. I’m hearing from many cruisers that they won’t go again until a vaccine is available. I’m also hearing from other cruisers that they can’t wait to get back on a ship and would do so tomorrow if they could. But in my opinion, the latter is just crazy and asking for trouble.
Julie: As American consumers inch towards traveling once the lockdown is lifted, do you think many will opt to travel domestically over internationally?
Johnny: I’m pretty sure the majority will opt to travel domestically. There’s also the fear that borders could be closed and travelers could be stuck elsewhere.
Julie: For those opting to travel domestically, do you think more will go by car thinking that this is a safer alternative than flying?
Johnny:Without a doubt. When I said domestically, I was thinking along the lines of road trips to avoid being confined on an airplane.
Julie:When do you think we will see travel back to pre-COVID-19 days?
Johnny: When there’s a vaccine or when there’s rapid testing available to travelers. Then things should be back to normal, as long as people have the money to spend on travel.
Julie: The airlines have been uncharacteristically generous and flexible with cancellations, re-ticketing and redepositing of frequent flyer miles in the face of the pandemic. Once the worst of COVID-19 is behind us, do you think we will see airlines pricing soaring again along with the return of nickeling-and-diming travelers at every turn? Personally, I never recovered from airlines not providing meals in the main cabin or charging for check-in luggage even though I only take carry-on when I travel.
Johnny: It’s all about supply and demand. The airlines have been so lenient because demand just dropped. They’re definitely going to continue nickel-and-diming passengers and prices will go up because they have cut capacity. So there will be fewer flights, fewer seats and fewer routes.
Julie: COVID-19 and its impact has pushed away news of Boeing and the 737-Max debacle. Do you think the airlines generally will be able to handle the pent-up traveler demand once it is safe to travel again?
Johnny: Right now, the airlines are actually happy that the 737-Max hasn’t been reauthorized to fly so it’s Boeing’s problem and not theirs. Otherwise, they would have to be parking more planes and paying for their leases as most airlines don’t own the planes they fly.
Julie: That brings me to the larger question of the maintenance of pilot flight deck skills while the majority of pilots haven’t been flying. The issue of pilot “recency” — requiring pilots to have three takeoffs and three landings within the past 90 days — will certainly be impacted as well as the natural muscle memory pilots have in the cockpit. Computer simulators help maintain those skills of course, but nothing beats actual flying. Do you think we will have more safety issues to worry about going forward?
Johnny: I don’t think so. Planes pretty much fly themselves these days. And I still believe the old adage that it is safer to fly than drive. Like you, I have heard pilots come on the intercom once parked at the gate at the end of a flight and say, “You’ve now just completed the safest part of your journey.” I still believe that will be true.
Julie: Once the green light is given, where do you think would be the safest places to go first?
Johnny: I think outdoor destinations are really going to do well for obvious reasons. Camping and travel to U.S. National Parks will explode and as I mentioned earlier, I think cruising will take a hit. And I personally can’t wait to get back to our local farmers’ market!
Julie: An interesting aspect of this pandemic has been both truly bad behavior, for example hoarding of items such as hand sanitizer and toilet paper, then black market gouging, but also undeniably altruistic behavior. A number of people and businesses have taken this time to channel their inner goodness in wonderful ways. One of my favorite recent stories is about travel goods retailer Jekyll & Hide in Ridgeway, New Jersey. The owner, Matt Gardner, had moved into his shop so his NYC-based sister and family could live in his house. He then took his ancient suitcase repair sewing machine and repurposed it to make face masks! Hopefully goodness of character will not be casualty of a coronavirus vaccine.
Johnny: I think this pandemic will make us a better society. People will practice better hygiene, respect people’s space and most likely do away with the practice of shaking hands, which is a huge method of germ transfer. But it’s at times like these that Americans really step up. I was in NYC during 9/11 and it was both the best and worst time in our country. People really came together like they are now and doing the right thing — not just for themselves, but for the greater good — and I think that goodness of character will only be stronger with a vaccine.
Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney and legal columnist based in Los Angeles and the author of the award-winning travel memoir “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached atJulie@VagabondLawyer.com.
You can reach travel expert Johnny DiScala at Johnny@johnnyjet.com