As the COVID-19 infection became increasingly widespread airlines around the world put into place several safety measures, including reducing passenger capacity on their planes to increase distancing. Many destinations which normally saw airliners packed full of flyers before the coronavirus appeared flew less than half full on the best of days and quite often with only a handful of passengers. Now, some airlines have announced they’re preparing to lift passenger capacity restrictions in hopes of once again seeing packed flights and some of the revenue they were earning before COVID-19 struck.
Airlines Hard Hit
There’s no doubt airlines have been hit hard by the coronavirus, with the number of flyers taking to the skies down by as much as 95 percent before COVID-19 appeared. In an effort to help prevent the spread of the virus most air carriers also voluntarily limited the number of seats on their planes which could be filled. American Airlines, the world’s largest carrier, started limiting their planes’ passenger capacity to 85 percent to improve distancing between flyers as far back as April and the virus did the rest. Given the huge decline in air traveler numbers and to save precious cash reserves airlines also parked thousands of their planes at airports wherever they could.
Airline Safety Measures
Even at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, some airline leaders remained skeptical as to whether social distancing could even be made possible on planes, given their limited cabin space. After all, except on jumbo and other large widebody jets it’s rare indeed that six feet of space can be created between passengers even when middle seats are left empty. Still, most airlines, prompted in part by their pilot unions, did try to institute social distancing practices. All major U.S. air carriers also put into place other safety measures, including requiring mandatory face mask wear by passengers and crews, with exceptions made for children, eating of food, and for those with medical breathing disabilities.
Glimmers of Hope
Recently, there have been signs that air travel may be seeing a modest comeback in the face of a seemingly stubborn coronavirus which simply refuses to go completely away. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration, for example, issues a daily report on the number of people screened at its security checkpoints. TSA screening numbers are still way off the same dates for last year, but even at that they do seem to be slowly on the rise. Sunday, June 28 saw more than 633,000 passengers go through TSA’s checkpoints, which is a big improvement over April 12, when only 90,510 air travelers did so (though 2.63 million were screened on the same big June weekend day in 2019). Airlines have also been increasing the number of flights to certain popular summer travel and vacation destinations. Carriers also report seeing an increase in passenger bookings, so some glimmers of hope of an eventual return to pre-coronavirus normality do exist.
Potential for Recovery
No one can say with any certainty just how long it will take airports and airlines to recover from the huge decline in air traveler numbers created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some airports, which once saw thousands of passengers daily, are still operating at far less than normal levels while others are seeing modest increases and a potential return to pre-coronavirus activity levels. Recovery by almost all airlines is also still spotty at best, at least for now. But air transportation of people and cargo, even with improvements to teleconferencing and communications technologies, is still a vital activity and there will always be a large-scale need for it, at least through the foreseeable future.
Kelly Hoggan, Founder and CEO of H4 Solutions, previously served as assistant administrator for operations at the Transportation Security Administration. In that role, he was responsible for aircraft and checkpoint security operations at the nation's 450-plus commercial airports.