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What to expect if you fly during the coronavirus pandemic

family with masks at an airport Photo by Orbon Alija / Getty Images

The year started well for U.S. airlines. Scheduled flights were up in January and February, then dropped slightly in March. Then flying fell off a coronavirus-induced cliff. By May 11, scheduled flights departing from the U.S. had declined nearly 75 percent from the same period in 2019, according to OAG, which analyzes aviation data. The virus that has sickened millions of people has put formerly profitable airlines on a path to losing a collective $84 billion worldwide this year, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) reported. 

Those statistics tell only part of the story. The rest of the tale emerges in changes to the act of flying, where once-familiar processes have been turned on their head. Here’s what to expect as you begin to think about flying the newly unfamiliar skies along with things you should keep in mind.

You’ll have fewer flight choices

Because airlines had to reduce flights and routes as the coronavirus spread and travel demand plummeted, passengers who book now will find fewer flights and less variety in departure and arrival times.

That’s even truer of many international markets, where demand has decreased precipitously, partly because of passenger concern about being abroad in these unsettled times, but also because of confusion about quarantine rules abroad, John Grant, a senior OAG analyst, said in a webinar. (To minimize confusion, IATA has created an interactive map that spells out country policies.)

You’ll be paying less for flights—for now

The price of an airline ticket tends to be demand driven, so would-be fliers probably will see attractive “please-come-back” fares for a while. Tickets for round-trip transcontinental flights were selling in early June for as low as $230, and some domestic routes in secondary cities were a shade more than $150.

You’ll want fares that are flexible

Since the pandemic started, many airlines have relaxed their once-strict policies on ticket changes and cancellations. Pre-coronavirus, fliers who canceled tickets often lost the full cost of a basic-economy fare or, on a regular economy ticket, were assessed a cancellation fee that often obliterated much of the ticket’s value. Some cancellation penalties have been lifted, but it’s important before booking to study the airlines’ rules to see whether your investment is protected.

Booking with a credit card is more important than ever

Use a credit card to book a ticket, but not more than 60 days out. If you booked within a two-month window, the Fair Credit Billing Act might protect you if your airline goes bankrupt and stops flying. 

You also should check your credit card’s benefits to see whether the card offers insurance that also might help protect a travel purchase that goes awry, although some card companies have recently walked back that coverage.

The TSA has new procedures

Now, you must place your boarding pass on the ticket reader and hold it up for the Transportation Security Administration officer to inspect visually, instead of handing it to the officer. You also should place food or snacks in a clear plastic bag that you can remove from your carry-on for screening. As usual, you may not have liquids, gels, or aerosols larger than 3.4 ounces each in your carry-on, but now you may carry up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer.

You'll need a mask

Requirements for face coverings are not uniform across the U.S. At press time, some airports, including Los Angeles International Airport, Seattle-Tacoma International, and Dulles International and Reagan National airports in Virginia, require masks, but in nearby Baltimore-Washington International in Maryland, such coverings are required at airport shops and restaurants but only recommended in the terminals. Check the website at your departure, stopover, and destination airports to avoid running afoul of local regulations. The face-covering rule generally does not apply to children younger than 2 or someone with a health condition—such as a severe breathing problem or an inability to remove a mask without assistance—that might preclude a covering.

Most major U.S. carriers will require a health assessment in which passengers will attest they are not ill, have not been exposed to someone with COVID-19, and will wear a face mask, Airlines for America (A4A), an industry trade group, recently announced. Each airline will determine the consequences of a passenger's failure to comply, the airline organization said in a statement. (A4A members are Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines, FedEx, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines and UPS. Air Canada is an associate member.)

At press time, Frontier Airlines was the only domestic carrier performing passenger temperature screenings. More widespread passenger temperature checks might be in the offering, but whether the airlines or another entity will be responsible was still undecided.

Planes might be emptier—or not

Although passenger traffic has dropped considerably, some airlines are keeping load factors—that is, the number of people on board—low. Southwest has said it will keep the middle seat open on flights until at least September 30. In a letter to customers, Delta CEO Ed Bastian promised that Delta middle seats would also stay empty through the end of September and that flights would be no more than 60 percent full. 

But increased load factors—often more than 80 percent—have helped keep airfares low these past few years, according to Seth Kaplan, a Washington, D.C.-based airline analyst. And the empty-middle-seat model is not financially sustainable in the long term. That may lead to fare increases. And American Airlines has announced it would book flights to full capacity beginning July 1.

Furthering the notion of “together apart,” companies are grappling with the need for passenger protection that would allow greater load factors. Italian firm Aviointeriors has designed Glassafe, and Netherlands-based Aviation Glass is seeking approval for AeroGlassShield, a new application of its existing AeroGlass product. Both design concepts incorporate clear barriers that shield passengers, and presumably their germs, from one another.

Tips for airline passengers flying during the coronavirus pandemic

Before heading to the airport, do some homework. Peruse your departing, connecting, and destination airports to learn their requirements for personal protective gear. 

Pack your own snacks for the flight. Some airlines have discontinued food service; others have restricted it. You’ll still need to buy liquid refreshment after the airport security checkpoint or carry a refillable water bottle to be filled post-security. You may carry mini-bottles of alcoholic beverages (3.4 ounces or less each and not more than 70 percent alcohol by volume) in your carry-on, but it is against Federal Aviation Administration rules to drink from your supply in flight.  

Bring your own reading material or other entertainment. Many airlines have removed the airline publications from the seat backs to reduce touch points.

Carry your own sanitizing wipes or hand sanitizer. Of course, you’ll wash your hands after using the restroom, but you’ll encounter some high-touch points, such as the door handle, as you exit. You’ll want a second squeeze of hand sanitizer or a swipe with a wipe, to be extra cautious.   

Research your postflight requirements. If your trip involves a hotel stay, explore your transportation options from the airport to your destination, whether by cab, ride share, airport shuttle, or public transportation. Before a hotel stay, ask about cleaning protocols and procedures.

Catharine Hamm formerly was the travel editor of the Los Angeles Times.

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