Air travel in the COVID-19 era

Future of flying holds uncertainty for providers and passengers

Air travel in the COVID-19 era

Air travel in the COVID-19 era

While the U.S. and other countries start to gradually open up in the immediate aftermath of their respective lockdowns, many of us, myself included, are itching to travel, but only when it’s safe to do so. Although some will take domestic summer road trips, others must travel by air for work or family matters, and still others will take to the skies for tourism as destinations reopen.

As we start to slowly crawl out of our respective caves, I again have invited fellow travel expert John E. DiScala, known as Johnny Jet, “on board” to my column for another virtual conversation.

Julie: Here we are again, two months after our first virtual chat about travel. I don’t know about you, however being housebound for so long has been very tough, though my closets are very, very clean. Marie Kondo would be so proud.

Johnny: Ha! I wish my closets were organized. When I first learned of the stay-at-home order I envisioned long days and of lot of productivity. But frankly it has been just the opposite. Time seems to be flying by even faster. I guess that’s what happens when you have two little ones at home, with no school and no babysitters.

Julie: Days have definitely become blurry. My husband says today is not Monday, Tuesday or whatever, it is just “day” which does not help time management. So have you been on a plane since we last spoke?

Johnny: No I haven’t, but I had one colleague travel from the West Coast to Albany via Charlotte and two others who were repatriated and flew from LAX via SFO to Sydney.

Julie: I can’t even imagine flying to Sydney now, even though I flew there three times between November and January. What were their experiences?

Johnny: In a word, surreal. The friends who flew to Sydney said the United 787 Dreamliner only had about 30 passengers total on board and there was no in-flight service in economy except for water and boxed meals. On landing in Sydney, they were greeted by uniformed officials and once processed, placed on a bus to a downtown hotel. There the mandatory 14-day quarantine commenced, complete with a guard posted outside their doors. All of this was paid for by the Australian government, including the three boxed meals daily arriving from the police commissary. Note: Only Australian citizens – and with very few special case foreigner exceptions – are allowed to enter Australia at this time. The friend who flew from LAX to Albany via Charlotte reported the flight to Charlotte was jam-packed, but the flight to Albany was not. She also noted that only about half the passengers at Charlotte airport were wearing masks, while at LAX everyone wore masks because it’s mandatory.

Julie: I haven’t flown either since mid-March though my adult daughter flew from JFK to LAX last Sunday. While the airports on both ends were eerily empty, her flight, at least in the economy cabin, was completely packed. Indeed, the only empty middle seat happened to be thankfully in her row. Her row mate however was a man in full personal protective equipment. Packing passengers in like sardines is not only unsafe, but also in contravention of what the airlines have said they would do, namely keep middle seats empty in the economy cabin until the next stage of this pandemic has been reached.

New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport was eerily quiet on a Sunday in May. (Courtesy photo)

New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport was eerily quiet on a Sunday in May. (Courtesy photo)

Johnny: Going forward, travelers should not believe most airlines when they say they’re going to keep the middle seats open. That was just a PR stunt because initially there were a lot more flights and planes were flying empty. The only domestic airlines that seem to be putting their money where their mouth is: Delta Air Lines and JetBlue Airways.

Julie: From now until the next significant change, all Qatar Airways cabin crew will be wearing full PPE over their uniforms, including safety goggles. While the heat would be utterly unbearable for a short jaunt from say Doha to Dubai, I can’t even imagine having to wear full PPE on one of their long-haul flights, some of which are north of 12 hours. The same PPE requirements are also now the case for Philippine Airlines and AirAsia. Since the U.S. COVID-19 numbers have been so high, especially on the coasts, do you think U.S. carriers will next mandate full PPE for their crew?

Johnny: I would like to see it, but I doubt they’re going to spend the money. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if they allow flight attendants to use PPE at their own expense.

Julie: Then it likely won’t happen as PPE are not easy to obtain on an individual basis given supply chain issues and are costly. Also, there is much confusion about face mask requirements. Some airlines tell their crew to allow passenger boarding even in the absence of masks, while other airlines adhering to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines insist on masks. Do you foresee the Federal Aviation Administration or the Transportation Security Administration mandating the use of face masks?

Johnny: I hope the FAA issues some clear regulations for boarding and mask maintenance inflight and TSA issues regulations for all domestic airport terminals. Passengers surprisingly have mixed sentiments and there will likely be some intense passenger pushback. Both of my friends that flew recently said there was at least one person sitting near them that kept taking their masks off even when the flight attendant and nearby passengers asked them to re-mask. Either way, I foresee a lot of inflight fights.

Julie: It’s a truly tough time for airline crew. In addition to the health risks involved, they now need to also be aero-cops. It’s a very difficult spot to be in since there are those who believe that donning a face mask infringes on their personal freedoms. To me this is utter nonsense as there is no constitutional right to be an asymptomatic vector.

Johnny: I would hate to be a flight attendant at this time because their very tough job just got a whole lot more difficult and dangerous. I wish people would put politics aside, rely more on science and be team players for humanity.

Julie: I’m not sure how this can really be policed in flight either. It seems that “mask fatigue” has already set it in. I have little doubt fliers will continue to do in flight what many grocery shoppers already do: wear masks to enter then move them under their chin as they spread germs throughout the produce aisles.

Johnny: Wearing a face mask will be the new emotional support animal scam. For those passengers that pretended to have a medical condition so they didn’t have to pay airline pet fees will now pretend to have a condition so they don’t have to wear a mask.

Julie: I sure hope you are wrong on that. I have dogs and love them far more than some humans, but admittedly I cringe every time I get on a flight with Fido or Fluffy. But COVID-19 is a whole other animal. Fido of Fluffy may bark, whine or relieve himself in another passenger’s airspace, but that won’t kill them.

Johnny: I hope I’m wrong too, but if social media comments are any indication, there’s a good chance it’s going to happen.

Julie: Do you have a flight now on your calendar?

Johnny: I have two that I booked pre-COVID-19, one for travel next week to Boston and one in December to Toronto, but I won’t be on either of them. I’m waiting for the airline to cancel so I can get a full refund of the fare instead of a travel voucher.

Julie: Does that mean no flying for Johnny Jet in 2020?

Johnny: Most likely I will not be flying. Will you?

Julie: The jury is still out on that question. I will let you know when they return a verdict. Stay tuned. Stay safe.

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.” Julie can be reached at www.VagabondLawyer.com.

You can reach travel expert John E. DiScala (aka Johnny Jet) at www.JohnnyJet.com.

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