Authoriti is promoting a technology that adapts the tech used to validate financial transactions to allow airports or the T.S.A. to confirm — from a passenger’s mobile phone app and without collecting personal data — that they have had a recent coronavirus test or haven’t recently been in a hot zone.
Airlines are burning $10 billion a month to fly empty. This can’t go on forever.
By Bill Saporito. Mr. Saporito is a contributor to the editorial board.
This article appeared on the NY Times Opinion page, May 27, 2020.
Airport terminals are nearly empty, there are no waits to get through security, and you don’t need to maneuver your way toward the front of the boarding line so you’ll get first crack at the overhead bin space. The coronavirus has temporarily, if perversely, erased some of the worst features of airline travel.
Big carriers such as Delta and Southwest are limiting flights to 60 to 70 percent capacity instead of trying to pack planes full. Boarding on some planes is back-to-front to decrease passenger interactions, which also makes it less of a mob scene. There is plenty of room for your carry-ons. And seat backs and tray tables, not to mention entire jets, are being sanitized after every flight with clouds of disinfectant. Finally.
Still, planes are flying nearly empty. On April 14, the Transportation Security Administration clocked a record low 87,534 daily travelers, down from 2.2 million that day in 2019. Americans don’t really believe they can fly without risking infection. How can you maintain six feet of distance in a cabin that is eleven and a half feet wide?
Most planes are in the air thanks only to the mandates imposed by the CARES stimulus act, which is providing some $50 billion in grants and loans to carriers. The money is keeping America’s air network operational and, most important, paying airline workers. But leaving the carriers to burn cash — at a rate of $10 billion a month — by flying to places few want to go is a flight plan for failure.
So what happens next? When the CARES rules expire on Oct. 1, the airlines will be free to choose the routes they want, within F.A.A. limits, but they will have to figure out a way to fly and make a profit. The only way airlines know how to do that is to fly nearly full planes.
In the last five years, airlines flew at about 85 percent of capacity and made record profits. Base fares were low, but the industry treated their passengers like ATMs, withdrawing money for everything from checked baggage to “coach plus” seats to water to the privilege of sitting with their family. And the seats got smaller and smaller. Those 17-inch-wide coach seats allowed carriers to herd us like sheep and pluck us like chickens.
Which is exactly the model the carriers will try to restore. Flying even two-thirds full — say, with the middle seats empty — will not make them profitable. That’s especially true for ultra-low-cost carriers such as Allegiant and Spirit. There are two broad choices: Pack the planes or jack up the fares. Do the latter and a lot of people won’t be able to fly and a lot of airline jobs will never return.
The airline industry has experience in upheaval that may serve it well. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, when planes were grounded and passenger traffic sank, several major airlines filed for bankruptcy; the mergers that followed erased US Airways, Continental and Northwest from the skies. That’s less likely to happen this time; the major carriers have enough cash to cushion them for the year. But several foreign carriers such as Chile’s LATAM and Avianca of Colombia have already filed for bankruptcy protection.
The best way to get more people flying is to lower the probability that sick or asymptomatic passengers — as well as flight crews, cabin crews and airport employees — even get as far as the airport. There’s been some discussion of “immunity passports” for people who test positive for antibodies for the coronavirus. But the testing isn’t reliable nor is it clear whether people can become reinfected.
While any kind of intrusive vetting seems unlikely to get off the ground in the United States, we can move toward a safer approach to flying. “Airlines need to make sure that their planes are not the source of the virus,” said Andrew Medland, a partner and aviation expert at the consultancy Oliver Wyman, “but transportation oversight needs to prevent anybody from packing the virus with them.”
The airlines have taken the first steps, but aviation authorities need to look beyond the tarmac. The International Civil Aviation Organization, part of the United Nations, has proposed “public health corridors” to isolate and protect discrete parts of flying: crew, aircraft, airports, cargo and passengers. Flight crews would not interact with passengers, for instance, and would be restricted in their movements if they are overnighting. This system also means stepped-up screening of passengers.
Keeping infected passengers off planes will require a different level of federal oversight. Airlines have said wearing masks are mandatory on flights, but they can’t enforce the rule unless the Federal Aviation Administration creates a regulation. And the agency has so far declined to act. Airports can conduct temperature screenings, but it’s not clear they can prevent people from flying.
That’s why Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the chairman of the House Committee on Transportation, and other House chairmen have asked the Departments of Transportation and Homeland Security to come up with new protocols for security, boarding and other routines to minimize risk.
Passengers have to take responsibility, too. Until a vaccine comes along, the privilege of flying may require giving airlines more information about your health and recent location than Americans are usually comfortable giving. One start-up, Authoriti, is promoting a technology that adapts the tech used to validate financial transactions to allow airports or the T.S.A. to confirm — from a passenger’s mobile phone app and without collecting personal data — that they have had a recent coronavirus test or haven’t recently been in a hot zone.
Mammoth Biosciences and the pharmaceutical company GSK are working on a coronavirus test that yields results in 20 minutes. Maybe a quick, convenient test becomes part of boarding.
For the love of travel or out of necessity, Americans have shown themselves willing to endure minor humiliations like partly disrobing to get through security and major annoyances like being stranded for days by canceled flights. In Covid-19, we have a new disaster to face, which will require a new set of rules, behaviors — and annoyances — to deal with.