From all outward appearances, air travel looks like it’s back to normal after Covid-19.
The crowds have returned, according to TSA screening numbers. And they’ll grow as the busy summer season approaches.
High fares are back, too. Airfares climbed almost 13 percent in February compared to a year ago, according to the government’s latest Consumer Price Index.
And complaints are rising. The Department of Transportation reports airline complaints in December exceeded 2,000, more than double the 914 in December of last year. It’s the latest month for which numbers are available.
But air travel is anything but normal now. And most travelers have no idea what to expect when they leave for the airport, to the point where some might forego air travel altogether.
Covid-19 is still here. The hassles of air travel are, if anything, worse than ever. And people are seriously wondering, with all that’s going on in the world, is it even safe to fly anywhere after Covid-19?
It might not be.
Is Covid-19 still a problem for air travelers?
Several European carriers have already lifted their mask requirements. The Department of Transportation will probably loosen its rules later this month. But with a dangerous and highly contagious XE omicron variant now spreading around the world, more people will be worrying about their health — and rightfully so.
Air travelers say the prospect of going maskless on a plane is daunting.
“I’ll continue to wear a mask,” says Barbara Howell, a retired nurse from Carpinteria, Calif. She’s immunocompromised and “easily” gets pneumonia, especially after air travel. And she’s not risking another infection, even if masks are no longer required.
“I have no problem if people make remarks,” she says. “That is their problem, not mine.”
Gene SirLouis, a manufacturer’s representative from Washington, DC, plans to keep his mask on when he flies.
“It’s not virtue signaling,” he says. “Although you might say that anyone who lobs an insult at someone wearing a mask might not have any virtues to signal.”
Studies on the risk of Covid to air travelers are inconclusive. One frequently cited 2020 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that you’re likelier to catch Covid on a commuter train or in an office building, classroom or supermarket. But there’s still a risk, and with the latest Covid variant being even more infectious, passengers are understandably worried.
Bottom line: Covid is still a problem for air travelers even as the pandemic heads for the exits. So travel after Covid-19 doesn’t necessarily mean Covid-19 won’t be a factor. You may want to pack a mask.
The real question is: Is it enough to keep you from traveling this summer and beyond For the most immunocompromised passengers, the answer will continue to be yes. But it’s not the only thing keeping people off planes.
Do you have to be vaccinated to fly?
Another common question is: Do you have to get a Covid-19 vaccine to fly? If you’re traveling domestically, the answer is no.
If you’re flying internationally, many destinations will allow you to enter without testing if you’ve been vaccinated. For example, if you’re traveling from the United States to Turkey, you can go without a test — if you can prove you’ve been vaccinated. If you’re not vaccinated, you must present a negative PCR test result received within the last 72 hours or a negative rapid antigen test taken within the last 48 hours, according to Turkish Airlines.
For now, the rules are a little complicated. There are at least four separate passenger categories: vaccinated, unvaccinated, under 12 and transportation workers such as seamen and truck drivers. Each may have its own vaccination rules, when it comes to flying.
Post-pandemic air travel is a hassle
No two ways about it, flying is a hassle — now more than ever. Covid-19 changed the way airlines operate, and not necessarily for the better. They cut flights, amenities and services.
One likely legacy of the pandemic is that we’ll lose an airline. Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines have proposed merging in a $6.6 billion deal. The airlines claim it would create an even more competitive ultra-low-fare carrier, offering better fares and service. If past airline mergers are any indication, that’s not going to happen.
But in the here and now, air travel is no picnic, either. The operational challenges from late last year, which led airline unions to complain their members were at a “breaking point,” are still here. Reduced schedules and staffing challenges remain. It takes months to ramp up schedules and hiring.
If you’re flying during the relatively quiet time between spring break and Memorial Day, you probably won’t notice much of a qualitative difference in your flight. But once the busy summer travel season begins in June, you should probably expect flashbacks from last summer. You remember last summer, don’t you? We had storms, massive cancellations, IT problems, and staffing issues. And then, of course, we had the highly infectious delta variant, which threw a wrench in the entire works.
Today, higher fares, crowds and reduced service are industry standards. But the attitude of flight crews is generating the most outrage. A cursory review of in-flight altercation over the last few months (mostly related to wearing masks) suggests some crewmembers provoked the confrontations. And that means you might not be flying the friendly skies the next time you board a flight, even if you can avoid a fistfight with a flight attendant. And that has a lot of travelers reaching for the car keys to drive when they want to go somewhere, instead of hailing a ride to the airport.
Should you avoid flying this summer?
In spite of all those hassles, it’s clear that this is going to be the summer of air travel. A new survey by TripIt from Concur predicts 73% of Americans will fly somewhere by June. And 60% will drive. (Some travelers will do both, so there is some overlap). With so many American planning to fly, what’s the best course of action?
Here are three questions that will help you make a decision:
How’s your health?
We’re not out of the woods on Covid yet, no matter what the CDC says. Case numbers will rise and fall, and people will continue to get sick. But an even bigger worry than getting sick on a plane will be getting infected on the ground. Health experts say you should look at the big picture. The flight may not kill you, but you could get very ill after landing. If you’re immunocompromised or haven’t been vaccinated, maybe this isn’t the summer to travel.
How do you plan to fly?
There’s a difference between flying unmasked and unvaccinated in the last row of economy class — you know, the place they line up for the bathrooms — and flying masked in first class. If you can create some social distance and escape the worst service on the aircraft, you’ll probably be fine. But if you’re flying in steerage class with other unmasked passengers, your risks go up. (It’s a great excuse to splurge for a business class ticket, but don’t forget to bring a comfortable mask.)
How much time do you have?
If you need to get somewhere in a hurry or if you have to cross an ocean, you’ll want to fly even if it’s torture. But for many Americans, driving remains an attractive option. If you have enough time to drive to your summer vacation destination, then this might be the year to skip the flight and get your SUV tuned up.
After Covid-19, flying is not back to normal. It only looks that way. Planes will be filled to capacity come summer, and you’ll pay more than you have in years to get to your destination. What’s more, the trip could be hazardous to your health.
Bottom line: When it comes to air travel after Covid-19, keep your expectations low. That way, you won’t be disappointed.