Plane pandemic

What's it like to fly during Covid-19? Pilots forecast the “eerie” future

"There's nothing remotely comparable to this."

On March 18 — the day before the U.S. State Department issued an international "do not travel" advisory — Emily*, a 25-year-old consultant, flew from London to Atlanta.

The experience was stressful and eerie, Emily tells Inverse. “The plane was packed and everyone was coughing.” Upon landing, public health officials from the Centers for Disease Control swept the plane wearing hazmat suits before passengers disembarked.

Emily is one of the few who have traversed the skies during the Covid-19 pandemic. Some experts say passenger traffic has dropped by as much as 95 percent. The global air travel industry is predicted to lose an estimated $314 billion in revenue in 2020, and the effort to contain the novel coronavirus has turned airports into ghost towns.

Covid-19 isn't necessarily making flying more dangerous, pilots and engineers tell Inverse. But it is transforming air travel logistically and emotionally. It's likely the aviation industry won't be the same as it was, even after the virus is contained.

Patrick Smith is a commercial airline pilot and columnist. He tells Inverse that Covid-19 has transformed what it’s like to fly, and the air travel industry in general, far more than any other event in history.

"There's nothing remotely comparable to this," Smith tells Inverse.

Smith has flown commercial airplanes throughout the Covid-19 pandemic — although less frequently. The current comparisons to September 11 are “beyond hackneyed” at this point, Smith says. The level of disruption to the airline industry seen immediately after 9/11, he explains, is now being experienced "every day."

When Smith first flew during the Covid-19 pandemic — a simple domestic "out-and-back" from New York in April — he prepared himself to process the unusual sights of emptier terminals and fewer passengers on board.

"What I wasn't really prepared for was how depressing it was," Smith says. "I didn't get a sense of anxiety or fear. It was this sense of melancholy that seemed to pervade through the whole experience."

While some passengers might be relieved by the small upsides of traveling during a pandemic — a quieter airport or shorter security lines — Smith just saw signs of a crumbling industry. Smith's plane had 40 passengers. It normally carries about 160, he says.

Inside JetBlue Terminal 5 of the John F. Kennedy International Airport on May 12.

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The pandemic has forced Smith to ask hard questions about what the event means for his career and the jobs of thousands of airline workers. For now, the answers are either disappointing or nonexistent.

With dwindling demand, about two-thirds of the world's passenger jets are currently grounded. Because airlines are consolidating flights, some planes still in the air are operating at a relatively normal capacity.

Meanwhile, some airlines like Delta, United, and EasyJet, are arranging passengers to accommodate social distancing — skipping rows or middle seats between travelers.

For passengers, the physical experience of being on a plane shouldn't be any different now than it was before the pandemic – save for maybe having more space between you and another person. The emotional experience, however, has changed.

Tom Bunn is a retired United States Air Force and commercial airline pilot. He says missing passengers don’t make a major difference weight-wise when it comes to flying a commercial aircraft safely or efficiently.

"If you don't have passengers on board, the plane is a little lighter and the performance is a little higher because you have less weight to haul around," Bunn tells Inverse. "But it's not a significant difference because passengers are not the major element of the weight of the plane. Most of it is the plane itself plus fuel."

In most commercial flights, planes such as a 737 or 747, patients make up a relatively small fraction, about 10 to 20 percent of their maximum weight load, Smith adds. Flying with fewer passengers may slightly lower the speed of take-off and landing, but not so much to dramatically impact the aerodynamics of a flight or the smoothness of the ride.

Emily didn’t notice any unusual turbulence or changes during take-off or landing, she says. It was more the heightened anxiety around potential exposure to Covid-19 that was stressful, not the flight itself.

Shifting protocols — Covid-19 is transforming protocols and precautions aviation professionals and passengers complete pre, mid, and post-flight.

On top of existing airport security measures, many airlines are instituting temperature checks, changing cabin service, upping sanitation, and cleaning efforts. This includes requiring flight attendants and passengers to wear masks, and enforcing a “six-feet-apart” rule in each queue.

Each of these measures, designed to prevent the transmission of the novel coronavirus, adds lags to an already somewhat laborious process, Smith says. He says Covid-19 is turning air travel into a "hellscape."

"Over the long term, all of this together is not sustainable," Smith says. "It would just destroy air travel because it makes the whole process so inefficient and tedious."

Todd Curtis is a systems engineer who spent nine years at Boeing analyzing risk across airline fleets. In 1996, he also created AirSafe, a consumer website to share air travel safety and security information.

Aviation, Curtis explains, is "a very regulated industry." This holds true from how a plane is flown to how an airport operates. Typically, it takes years for small changes to actually be implemented, he says. But when major events happen, like 9/11 or the liquid explosive scare of 2006, the system rapidly adjusts.

"So we have — with 9/11 and liquid bombs — examples of extra hassle becoming a normal part of everyday life and everybody complaining about it," Curtis says. "I see something similar happening Covid-19. What form it will take and how long it will take remains to be seen."

An airline employee walks past empty American Airlines check-in terminals at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, on May 12.

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The deciding factor will really be how likely you are to get sick from traveling on an airplane. If it turns out that airlines are "flying Petri dishes," it seems fairly obvious that air travel will continue to diminish, Curtis says.

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control advises the risk of Covid-19 infection on an airplane is "low." The World Health Organization echoes the CDC's advisement, saying research shows there is "little risk" of any communicable disease being transmitted onboard an aircraft.

That's because the quality of aircraft cabin air is carefully controlled, the WHO explains. Ventilation provides a total change of air 20 to 30 times per hour. In addition, most modern airplanes have recirculation systems, which recycle up to 50 percent of cabin air. The recirculated air is usually passed through high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters similar to those used in hospitals and intensive care units, which trap dust particles, bacteria, fungi, and viruses.

Transmission of infection is possible between passengers seated near one another or with direct contact, but no different than any other situation where people are in close proximity like a train, bus, or theater, the WHO says.

Still, scientists haven't conducted studies to determine the risk of catching or spreading Covid-19 on an airplane. They also haven't determined which interventions — from temperature scans to sanitation procedures — influence transmission rates during air travel.

"It may take years before the nuances are worked out and it's something that can be sustainable over a long period of time," Curtis says.

The future of flying — Ultimately, airlines are rapidly changing standard practices in an effort to make people feel comfortable flying again. But day by day, they're losing money "hand over fist," Curtis explains.

"There's not going to be a defined end to this," Smith says. "Things will just slowly change and then improve. What that means for the industry in terms of consolidation, bankruptcies, liquidations remains to be seen, but almost certainly there will be a little of each of those things."

In the meantime, Smith continues to fly passengers across the country, and around the globe. His flight schedule is emptier than it was pre-pandemic. But thanks to the recent 25 billion dollar United States airline bailout, Smith is effectively being paid his regular salary through September.

Bunn predicts people won't feel confident flying until effective treatments or vaccines are developed: "If we don't have that, I don't see how we're going to be comfortable."

Sixty percent of recent travelers anticipate a return to travel one to two months after Covid-19 is contained, according to a survey by the International Air Transport Association. Others say they'll wait six months or more.

Emily hasn't let her stressful transatlantic flight stop her from flying again. She recently flew out West, and said the experience "wasn't that bad."

*Names and identifying details have been changed due to privacy concerns.

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