What it’s like to fly during COVID-19, and how the industry is bleeding money

Airplanes have a bad reputation for cutting legroom and seat space to pack bodies into every possible space to make extra money. Now during the coronavirus pandemic, many airlines are still filling planes with mask-clad passengers. Others are selling limited tickets, keeping middle seats empty, and building little pods for passengers.

This is the worst economic crisis in American aviation history, according to Brian Sumers, who covers airlines for Skift

KCRW: Is it unsafe to fly now? 

Brian Sumers: “Arguably, it's a better time to fly now than it was a year ago because on a lot of airlines, you are no longer hemmed in like sardines. There are at least three airlines — JetBlue, Delta and Southwest — that essentially aren't selling middle seats. So you have more room to spread out. 

If these were normal times, people would be very excited about that. The problem is of course we have COVID-19, and so the travel experience that people remember is not coming back. It isn't here, and for that reason, it is not a good time to fly. For example, if you're flying now, you must wear a mask.” 

American and United are still selling the middle seats.

“That's right, American and United are selling the middle seats. They are giving customers an option though. Both of the airlines say that they will contact passengers if their flights are booked at more than 70% and say,  ‘Your flight looks like it's going to be full. Do you want to switch to another one for no charge?’ 

Both of those airlines say almost nobody is taking them up on their offer. Turns out, if you really want to go to San Francisco or Vegas or wherever you're going, you want to go on the flight you are planning to go on and not one four hours later or the next day.”

Should travelers upgrade to business or first class? Is it safer?

“Arguably, no. You know, we all follow the rules and we're supposed to follow the rules. Generally, when you're not in the air, you're supposed to be six feet away from other people. 

The reason that American and United don't block middle seats, they say, is because there's no such thing as social distancing on an airplane. Even if you block the middle seat, you are much closer than six feet away from the person next to you. 

In business class, you would have more room, but you're still not social distancing, according to the real rules of the game. In this case, if the virus is your worry, coach is probably as good as the front of the plane.”

What about the air circulating throughout the plane?

“This is a big deal for airlines. Airlines say this idea that you get sick more often on the airplane is false. They never really pushed back on it before. But they say they pretty much use the same filters as hospitals, HEPA-grade filters, to filter the air. You're basically not breathing the same air as other people, they say. And they say it's perfectly safe to be in the air. So that's the good news. 

Of course the problem is if you go to LAX or any other airport, it's not about just being on the airplane. The airports don't have these filters. Certainly the car that you ride on to get to the airport doesn't have these filters. The jet bridge doesn't have these filters. So if you're waiting to get on the airplane and you're a foot away from somebody else, you'd get sick that way. Airlines do a pretty good job of controlling the air quality on the airplane itself. But the rest of the travel journey is anybody's guess.”

What does it look like economically for airlines? 

“Airlines are absolutely bleeding money. United Airlines yesterday reported earnings. In the earnings release, they said it was the worst quarter in the 94-year history of the airline, so worse than 9/11, the Great Recession, worse than everything. Their revenue was down something like 90%. They lost $2.6 billion in a three month period. 

It is a disaster out there. Almost every U.S. airline is going to go through major layoffs or furloughs. United has been more aggressive. They sent furlough notices to 36,000 employees recently. It doesn't mean all of them will go. But a lot of them will go. 

The airline industry that people remember from a year or two ago, it's gone. It is not coming back for a long time. There's going to be a very long recovery period here, anywhere from about two to five years, people think.”

Will there be fewer airlines? 

“There will probably be fewer airlines. … At this point, what we're seeing is every airline is going to be smaller, but there's no obvious airline candidate to go out of business. From a historical basis, we actually have fewer airlines now than we did 20 or 30 years ago. People remember names like TWA and Eastern and Pan-Am. 

There used to be a lot of weak airlines out there, and we had more airlines. Coming into this crisis, we had fewer airlines, and they were stronger. So it is possible that all the airlines that went into this will come out of this. It's just some of them are going to be a lot smaller.”

Who is the most likely candidate to go out of business? 

“The weakest U.S. airline right now is considered American Airlines. 

They don't want to talk about bankruptcy. They say it's not possible. They say they're doing fine, but they have tens of billions of dollars of debt. And American needs passengers to come back very quickly. 

The others came into this with less debt, and they're in comparatively better shape. Of course, the golden boy in all this is Southwest Airlines. Customers love Southwest. Investors love Southwest. They came into this with a strong balance sheet. In the past, Southwest has used a good crisis like 9/11, or the financial recession to actually grow at the expense of their competitors, and that may happen here as well.”

You flew a lot last year. Would you get on an airplane today?

“I flew about 150,000 miles last year. It was my obsession. I flew every week or every other week. The best answer I can give you is no. I haven't flown through this crisis. And I have no plans to fly for a long time. And I am not unusual. 

United Airlines just had its earnings call. They say they're hopeful they can get back to about 50% of demand. But they say in order to get beyond 50% of demand, they need a vaccine. They need a cure for this. They need people to forget about COVID. They have a huge number of customers that they know just aren't coming back for any reason until it is safe to fly.”

— Written by Jennifer Wolfe and Amy Ta, produced by Nihar Patel and Rosalie Atkinson