Are airlines over?

Empty center seats and possibly empty rows, quick tests, “health passports” and temperature checks at airports.  I am reading lots of possibilities that might impact the future of flying, and none of it is pretty.

Nor is it likely to be cheap. The devil is in the details, of course, and I’ve begun to think about how some of this might work.

The pervasive risk uncertainties associated with densely-packed airplanes (and there are no other kinds that make money) in the pandemic era—travel risks both existential and real (it’s hard to tell which is which anymore)—combined with the steep and apparently long-term world economic collapse have forced me to consider whether airlines are over.  Airports, too, for that matter, since they exist only to funnel passengers to and from airplanes.

Will I want to risk flying crowded airplanes again?  Except for Delta, which has pledged (for now) not to book any flight at more than 60% capacity, airlines have so far failed to maintain safe spaces between passengers.  Even so, who can say with statistical certainty what my risk is of being exposed to the virus when keeping folks apart on planes?

Even if the airlines make such seating distance permanent, won’t that double or triple fares?  Because I’ll have to subsidize the empty seats or the airlines won’t be able to make money.  Assuming that is true, will I be able to afford the much higher fares? (Fellow blogger Carol Pucci has an interesting perspective on what we might see.)

Will anyone be able to afford such high costs, especially if the global recession persists?  And if not, then perhaps the commercial aviation profit model that worked so well for investors before the pandemic is dead and gone.  Hence, my question, Are airlines over?

Before dismissing the possibility that airlines won’t be viable private sector entities any longer, I need to look at mitigation factors under consideration, including “Heath passports”, airport temperature checks, and fast testing.

Since most airfares are currently (a) purchased weeks or months in advance and (b) nonrefundable, what happens when I suddenly develop a slight fever associated with a 48-hour bug or common cold (quite normal for all of us from time to time) that isn’t Covid-19 that causes me to be refused entry at the airport “temperature check” screen? Will the airline refund my money or give me a voucher equal to the full value of the fare?

If not, why not? How could I possibly know when I paid way ahead of time that I’d have a fever the day of my travels?

For that matter, suppose I come down with Covid-19 just before I fly. Of course, I didn’t expect to get it or want to get it, and I took reasonable precautions to avoid contracting the deadly virus, but I still got it.  Should I be financially penalized for something over which I had no control?

Mild cold or the coronavirus, the point is there is no way to know I’d have a fever when I bought the nonrefundable ticket weeks or months in advance, and if the airlines insist that I’ve lost my money, then why would I ever risk paying to fly again?

Similarly, what happens if I come down with a fever at my destination the night before my return flight? Will I be allowed to fly home at no extra charge once my body temp drops below 100.4°?

If so, that implies I will be stuck somewhere paying for extra hotel nights until my temp falls (assuming hotels let me in with a fever). If that is the new reality, then once again I ask:  Why would I EVER again risk buying an air ticket if I knew I might not be allowed to fly home if I got a slight fever while away?

Suppose authorities institute a so-called “health passport”. Will that be a required document like a valid photo ID to fly? If so, who issues it, and what constitutes proof, and how long is it good for?  What does “health passport” even mean?

Will I be required to register my health passport in the airline rez system record before being allowed to purchase a ticket?

And, anyway, what the hell good is a “health passport” if I come down with a fever the night before my flight? Doesn’t that moot the underlying rationale for a health passport?  Having such a document doesn’t guarantee 24/7/365 good health.  In theory, it’s just a snapshot of proof that I didn’t have Covid-19 when the “passport” was issued, or perhaps proof that I had the disease at one time and was showing antibodies at the time the “passport” was issued, even though such resistance is known to fade over time.

Lastly, if other passengers on my flight have unknowingly contracted Covid-19 and are contagious, but not showing symptoms, which is how this damnable virus works, then why would I ever risk flying even with mitigation factors in place?

Even if so-called “quick tests” for the virus become a standard airport mitigation element, such assessments are so far prone to a disturbing percentage of false results.  Thus, health risks persist.

Have the airlines thought through these implications?

If the airline profit model no longer works in the post-pandemic world, then airlines as we have known them could indeed be over.  What then?  Air travel is a public necessity, so perhaps the government will step in to nationalize air service.

How would that look?  The railroads shed passenger trains in 1971 to be run by the government in an entity called Amtrak.  And that hasn’t worked out so well.  Will we have something similar?

If so, perhaps it could be called “Amsky” or “Amfly” or “Govwing” or “Fedair”.  No matter the name, if that happens, I foresee a fierce yearning on my part for the good old days when I bitterly complained about the crummy service I experienced on one former private airline or another around the world.

One thought on “Are airlines over?

  1. Hi Mr. Allen: I was interested in your discussion on the future of the airlines. It is quite a conundrum! The medical implications are vast, as you describe.
    I am older than you are, but I well remember the thrill of my first flight at age 16 and the many that followed. But in the early days a trip on a plane was considered an absolute treat and one saved for for long periods, in order to afford an airline ticket. As the years went by, air travel became increasingly mundane, but we were expected to go to that medical convention or business meeting with everyone else. Maybe this interruption will cause us to go back (at least, somewhat) to the idea that a trip by air is something “special”. With the advent of internet meetings and rapid email, business travel should be able to be reduced significantly. People may decide to vacation closer to home. As you point out, though, this is NOT good for the future of the airlines. They will have to reduce their expectations accordingly.
    Joann Lamb

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