Health

Flights Are a Mess Right Now. Will They Ever Be Safe Again?

Airlines are trying to create a new normal for pandemic flying, but customers of Delta, American, JetBlue, United, and more are fighting back about wearing masks and leaving seats empty.
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, United States
June 18, 2020, 3:30pm
Flying Is a Mess Right Now. Will It Ever Be Safe Again?
Gerrie Van Der Walt via Unsplash

Update 6/29: American Airlines announced on Friday that it would resume booking flights to capacity and stop blocking middle seats on July 1, as cases of coronavirus continue to reach record highs across the United States. The airline says it will still alert customers if their flight is particularly full, in case they want to move to "more open flights when available."

The compelling plane picture at the beginning of the pandemic was of an empty one. Adhering to guidance from the CDC to avoid nonessential travel, and out of fear of a virus that spreads easily and kills often, people took advantage of uncharacteristically generous flight cancellation policies and stayed home. Planes kept flying, with almost no one on them.

Now states are reopening, more planes are back in the sky, flights are filling up again, and the federal government placed the responsibility to keep passengers safe on the airlines. Despite urging from a flight attendant union, the federal Department of Transportation has refused to institute a nationwide, mandatory mask rule when flying, which several other countries have done.

Airports and airlines are lobbing up a bunch of nice-sounding promises about safety procedures in hopes of landing on a sustainable status quo where everyone feels, and is, safe. But they are still regularly dealing with enforcing those procedures among rogue passengers who refuse to wear their masks or stay away from fellow travelers, meaning the process of flying is still low-to-high level chaos with few agreed-upon rules. As a result, the business may have a long way to go.

Kelly O’Meara, 26, experienced two wildly different airport scenarios on a flight from Philadelphia to Mexico City, with a connection in Charlotte, North Carolina, in late May, he told VICE. When he got to the airport in Philadelphia around 3 a.m., there was almost nobody there, and the people he did see were all wearing masks and staying distanced. But navigating through the airport in Charlotte was “a completely different experience.”

“When I got off the plane, I was shocked by how ‘normal’ things seemed,” O’Meara said of his arrival to the Charlotte airport. “The terminals and gates were fairly crowded. A little over half of the people there wore masks. The people that didn’t wear masks were mostly white and middle aged. I was also appalled to see that pretty much every store and restaurant was open at the airport; people were lined up—with no distancing—at Starbucks and Chick-Fil-A and maybe half of the workers actually wore masks. I could not believe my eyes.”

Everything known so far about slowing the spread of coronavirus is completely antithetical to how air travel functions. The virus is most commonly transmitted in crowded, enclosed spaces where people linger for hours at a time, just like in an airport or on a plane. The act of getting through security requires touching the filthiest surface in the entire building (security bins). People crowd around gates and in boarding lines.

Despite safety precautions based on coronavirus research, it is still spreading around airports. The essential workers who remain in their jobs during the pandemic are the most at-risk for getting sick, which should be a humanitarian concern for people doing the traveling. The TSA tracks and updates confirmed cases among its agents and continues to report new illnesses at almost every major airport.

None of the five most popular commercial airlines in the United States—American, Delta, Southwest, United, and JetBlue—have anywhere near the six feet of space recommended for social distancing between rows of seats. Within rows, passengers share touchpoints and armrests with their neighbors. Going to the restroom requires scooching past one to two people, and then walking down a narrow aisle past dozens more.

"It was incredibly anxiety inducing to be on a packed flight in the middle of a pandemic."

To get people back in their seats, airlines that previously operated under the cost-effective ethos of, Let’s cram as many people into this plane as possible, are now promising safety measures that keep seats empty. All five major U.S. airlines now require masks on board. Three of the five—Delta, Southwest, and JetBlue—explicitly say they’ll keep middle seats empty (or aisle seats on smaller planes) until later this summer. Both American and United have said they’ll try to contact passengers ahead of time, if they’re booked on a particularly full flight.

An American Airlines agent told O’Meara in advance that his flight from Philadelphia to Charlotte would be 90 percent full, with middle seats blocked, but he said the plane still felt as crowded as a normal flight. “I’m not sure if she meant 90 percent occupancy after accounting for missing middle seats, but it sure as hell felt like 90 precent capacity,” he said. “Thankfully all the flight attendants and passengers wore masks, but it was incredibly anxiety inducing to be on a packed flight in the middle of a pandemic.”

In airports, the TSA has said it’s “consolidating its screening operations” now that flight capacity is diminished, has implemented social distancing procedures in security checks, allows up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer, and is regularly disinfecting the security bins. Before a recent flight from Cincinnati to Salt Lake City, to go take care of her sick mom, Sara, 56, said there were Xs marking where people could stand in the security line, and 90-95 percent of people were wearing masks. But on her return from Salt Lake City, “social distancing as well as face masks were an afterthought at the airport,” she told VICE. Only about half the people she saw were wearing masks, and the gate itself was crowded, like normal.

Stories like Sara’s and O’Meara’s have flooded Twitter over the past month, as more states have reopened, airlines have put more planes back in the air, and people have resumed some level of travel. Even though all five major commercial airlines require masks, repeated complaints on social media reveal the airlines inconsistently enforce them.

Seemingly in response to those complaints, United Airlines announced Monday that it would consider banning customers who refuse to wear masks on board. Delta and American announced similar consequences for people who go maskless on board. On Wednesday, Astead Herndon, national politics reporter at the New York Times, tweeted about “a mutiny” on his American Airlines flight from Dallas to Tulsa after a passenger on board refused to put on a mask. In the background of a video Herndon tweeted, a flight attendant is heard telling the maskeless passenger he has other travel options, like corporate jets, if he refuses to wear a mask, and another traveler on the plane shouts, “either you put it on or get off.” The maskless passenger ultimately left the plane.

That these measures are so inconsistently enforced, varying from airport to airport and flight to flight, could be why so many disease experts are still hesitant to get back on planes. In a recent New York Times survey of 511 epidemiologists, a majority of those polled said they wouldn’t feel comfortable traveling by plane for at least three months to over a year. It’s not clear what it will take for everyone to safely resume flying—a vaccine? herd immunity? little bubbles on planes?—but it’s worth betting that the next time you step on a plane, the experience will be much different than it was pre-pandemic.

This generation has already endured one round of structural changes to commercial flying. The TSA and security as we now know it didn’t exist until after 9/11, when then-President George W. Bush signed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act in response to the attacks. “After 9/11, the sense was that we were in a state of excessive fear; I thought things would go back to normal after a year or two, and things have not gone back to normal,” Steve Mooney, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, told VICE. “We still have TSA, we still have major structural changes. I can imagine that the same thing will be true with flying after coronavirus. It will fundamentally change things, even if we have a vaccine.”

Changes to security lines and on planes are likely to continue as research on COVID-19 and how it spreads continues. Six months ago, the CDC believed checking temperatures before boarding would keep infected people off planes, until studies showed presymptomatic spread was a major factor in the rise of new cases, and monitoring temperatures took a backseat to mask-wearing and social distancing.

“The thing that is unsatisfying but fundamentally true about epidemiology is that if we knew the answer, we’d already be doing it,” Mooney said. “A lot of our recommendations are based on imperfect data because we just don’t know enough about how everything works.”

We may still need to completely overhaul the way we fly in order to ensure safety. “Airlines have done a lot, but there is more we can do as passengers to keep ourselves and our flying companions safe,” said Michaela George, assistant professor with the Global Public Health Program at the Dominican University of California. “Don't travel if you feel sick. Cancelling your trip because you don't feel well should be common practice. Wear a mask when you are inside the airport and the plane. These are easy changes, and should become common practice when we take flights in the future.”

Mooney isn’t an engineer, but speculated about, for instance, changing air circulation in planes so that each passenger’s air flows only around their seat. “Constant airflow would be incredibly uncomfortable, you could imagine,” Mooney said. “What levels of change we’re willing to tolerate are a mix of human and technological questions, like with [TSA] body scanners. When they first came out, people were really resistant, but TSA said, no, we’re going to do this.” Now every time we board planes, we submit to full body scans—an unimaginable reality 20 years ago. We still may not have made all the changes needed in order to fly safely, but going back to normal may be the least likely scenario of all.

Follow Hannah Smothers on Twitter.