Air travel trends on the go

Air travel has been in the crosshairs of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether it’s low bookings, new airline ticket change policies or federal transit mask mandates, airlines and their passengers have been hit by a series of disruptive events that have changed the air travel experience.

We know where we have been during the worst of the pandemic. The bigger question is where do we go from here, where the virus is endemic?

Passenger load increase

Air traffic has gone up. In April 2022, more than 63 million passengers passed through aviation security checkpoints, the highest passenger numbers dating back to pre-pandemic levels. This represents more than 90 percent of passenger screening volume in April 2019. Airlines are benefiting from this rise in demand, with airline ticket prices rising. Jet fuel prices are also higher compared to last year, although they have fallen over the past month. With the busy summer travel season just ahead of us, airlines will balance the economics of supply and demand to raise airfares and adjust the ability to return to profitability.

Face Masks Off

A federal court ruling on the authorization of face masks means that face masks are now optional on planes, trains and public transportation. The difficulty lies in any implementation mandate, which is left on the planes to the flight attendants – not the ideal situation for them. Air rage reached unprecedented levels on flights in 2021, with 70 percent of accidents linked to passenger reaction to the mandate of face masks. Now that masks are optional, every flight will have a mix of passengers who wear masks and those who don’t, creating a new possibility for conflicts on board.

Airlines should seriously consider isolating passengers temporarily in seats based on their intention to wear a mask, much like the way airlines once had smoking and non-smoking sections to accommodate passengers’ preferences. This may help reduce anxiety among those who choose to wear a face mask, while appeasing those who do wear masks by sitting among like-minded people.

COVID-19 infections soar

Cases of COVID-19, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have been creeping higher over the past month, with the seven-day average movement now more than double what it was in late March. However, these numbers are somewhat misleading because the majority of new infections go undetected, or when they are detected, they are done through home tests that are likely never to be reported in the national database. This means that there are likely to be infected and contagious people on many of the flights. With no mandatory barriers for face masks to reduce the risk of transmission, more people will become infected when traveling. Although transmission on the flights themselves will remain low, due to air circulation and air purification systems in place, boarding and disembarking the plane and time spent meeting at the airport will become fertile environments for virus transmission.

Children are still at risk

The summer travel period will see more children on planes, with children under the age of five not eligible for vaccinations. Although the outcome of the infection has been mostly benign, they will be more at risk while traveling with fewer passengers not wearing face masks.

Parents of young children may choose to drive rather than fly. While this may limit interactions with unmasked travelers, driving is statistically more dangerous than flying in terms of risk of death, so more children could actually die from these transportation options.

Airports and airlines must work together to rethink how they manage and protect young travelers in the near term, giving parents the confidence to fly.

The summer travel period will be full of crowded planes among travelers who are paying more for their tickets than they did several years ago. It is also not known whether the Justice Department’s appeal will succeed in overturning the end of the mandate for face masks for transfer. It’s probably a safe bet that they won’t be, unless some catastrophic event occurs that requires such authorization.

Air travel will adapt and readjust to a world where the coronavirus will continue to infect and re-infect people. The road ahead looks much brighter than it has in months, yet clouds of uncertainty may continue to emerge, without warning. Nothing is certain in such an environment, either in the air or on the ground. How airlines and travelers will respond is still anyone’s guess.

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a founding professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to assess and inform public policy. He has conducted research on aviation security systems since 1995. His research provided the technical foundations for TSA PreCheck.

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