Is It Safe To Go Outside Yet?


If you could put a single date on the airline disaster that is the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be March 23, 2020. On that single day, after a week of brisk declines, passenger traffic through TSA security went off a cliff. The week before, at 1.25 million passengers per day, it had already been about half the 2019 levels. On March 23, it plummeted to 331,000, just 14 percent of the previous year.

As staggering as that was, it got worse. On April 14, 87,534 passengers checked in—96 percent lower than the previous year’s volume. If anyone predicted this, I haven’t seen the verified quote. What’s almost as surprising is how little the passenger traffic has recovered. The chart at left shows the directionality. Best case, only a little over a third of the business volume has resumed. And if you extrapolate that line out to meet a like line drawn through the previous year’s traffic, it intersects in two years, if it intersects at all. Delta recently warned investors it would be at least two years to recover lost business, but that might be optimistic.

The travel industry is bracing for restructuring and, as reported by The Wall Street Journal, many believe the lucrative business travel that helped sustain the profitable airlines won’t be coming back at all, much less soon. Businesses are discovering the Zoom call will do in lieu of a trip and it’s both more efficient and cheaper. And if you can remember not to stand up, you don’t even have to wear pants. As airlines restructure, some things appear likely. Higher fares, fewer flights and more connections. That might not help much in luring passengers back.

Currently,  the return in volume doesn’t even qualify as anemic. What are people afraid of? Is the fear justified? Increasingly, the answer appears to be no. What data we do have—and that’s not much—shows no clear pattern of infections among passengers and crew, although there have been some. Last month, the airlines reported employees were reporting a lower rate of infection than in the public at large.

The airlines are making a show of spraying the cabins with disinfectants and some are still pledging to keep a middle seat open, but I’m not sure how long that can go on. Just today, Southwest announced it will end the middle-seat blocking in December and Delta will do the same early next year. Sixty percent load factors are flights to financial ruin, even if they fly through Atlanta or Chicago for connections. United and American have already started filling the cabins. Or trying to.

And speaking of United, the airline partnered with the Department of Defense to conduct this study that revealed that the chance of acquiring a COVID-19 infection on an airliner is essentially nonexistent. It found that 99.99 percent of marker particles released in the cabin were scrubbed away by the cabin filtration in about six minutes. While I’m somewhat skeptical of the claim, I agree that the risk of infection is vanishingly small and personally, I wouldn’t worry enough about it not to fly. That study, by the way, assumed masks were in use.

For the exceptionally fastidious and the inveterate worrywarts, some travel experts are recommending masks, eye protection, gloves and sanitizer to clean the tray table, the seat and so forth. I’ll pass on some of that. Fomite transmission hasn’t been found to be a factor in COVID-19 attack rates and if the airlines are squirting some potent sanitizer into the cabin after every flight, that’s good enough for me when combined with a mask and a bottle of hand sanitizer. I’m all for habitual, reasonable mitigations, but I’m not gonna drive myself to the edge of sanity. I suspect one reason so many people haven’t returned to flying is related to that. It’s just easier to stay home or drive on medium-range trips, even if the rational mind concludes the risk isn’t high on airplanes.

And if you’re still a mask doubter, here’s another study on the efficacy of masks, specifically on airplanes. Unfortunately, it’s a small study with not that many flights tracked. But the data, buttressed by numerous other observational and empirical studies, supports the belief that masks are an effective mitigation, just not foolproof. Those who insist otherwise are—and I won’t sugarcoat it—bordering on willful ignorance.

This article says you can’t really buy N95 masks. You sure can. Buy them all day for about $3 each. Some are KN95s. I have a small supply and wear them exclusively where masks are expected—stores, businesses, the gym—but not outside. I’ll wear them on airliners when I get on one next, but I’m on the fence about doing the same in small aircraft cockpits. An important caveat: These N95s aren’t medical grade, they’re non-vented industrial masks. What they lack is the hydroscopic coating that protects against liquid (blood) intrusion the medical types have. It’s a small tradeoff for the effective filtration they offer, although they’re not especially comfortable.   

Tampa International, my airline airport of choice, does a good job of marketing itself. I recently got a newsletter saying with traffic rising, they’re opening up more concessions. Evidently, as has become a familiar sight everywhere, their mitigations include distancing markers on the floors and wrap-around sneeze shields. Combined with masks, this seems reasonable to me, unless the terminals become packed again and then maybe not.

One thing gives me pause. While this is assumption of personal risk, it’s not just personal risk. When you expose yourself to infection risk—however small—you also potentially endanger others. In many states, infections are on the rise and throughout the seven months of this trial, my personal behavioral standard has been to do all I can to avoid requiring hospital care that would further endanger medical workers, many of whom I count as personal friends.

The calculation I’m making now is that I deem the risk acceptably low and will fly commercially when the need arises. So far, it hasn’t. But I suspect it will soon enough. Come spring, if a vaccine is available, the equation may again shift and then we’ll be into speculating about Aero and Sun ‘n Fun.

For now, I’m trying not think that far ahead.

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  1. Since I have already said my peace on the mask wearing on airplanes, I will say this. The first question asked by my charter passengers is “do I have to wear the mask” even when us crew members wear masks to greet our pax on the ramp. The lucrative business passengers are not returning because of the liability involved for that business. That is part of the reason my company is so busy right now. The leisure passengers are not returning due to the unconstitutional travel restrictions various states have implemented. Who wants to vacation someplace that requires a 14 day quarantine. Pretty much kills any incentive to go somewhere for a vacation. And the testing involved has been shown to be unreliable. Just ask Jimmy Johnson, or the governor of Ohio Mike DeWine, or several NFL teams. Until those restrictions go away no one is going to want to airline anywhere, masks or not.

  2. Thank you Paul for your well reasoned reflection on the issue. Your attention to your personal behavior so as to not endanger the lives of others is especially refreshing in an era during which somehow many Americans have come to regard government instituted mutual protection measures, measures we take for the good of each other as “unconstitutional” rather than just being neighborly like we once were.

    • Being neighborly and protecting others is virtuous, worthwhile, and should be inherent to everyone’s human nature. Unfortunately its not. Its terrifying people think the government can fix this. Where do you draw the line? While I agree with masks and wear one for the same reason you do, I don’t want the government forcing my personal behavior simply because of the government’s virtues. That’s not OK! Isn’t that part of the reason we formed this country?! If a mandate goes against my personal beliefs and I am doing nothing criminal, then the government has overstepped its function and this is absolutely unconstitutional. Its refreshing that some 50% of Americans still believe this.

  3. Matt is correct. The quarantines and other bureaucratic BS are keeping people away from travel. The biggest problem is that most reported cases of the virus are only indications of exposure to the virus, not positive indication of infection. The new media spends a majority of its broadcast time regurgitating some meaningless statistics re: the virus. Governments are restricting travel or mandating shutdowns. So why travel when you may not be able to go to your destination, may not be able to get a meal or be forced to self quarantine? There is pent up demand for travel, especially for leisure destination travel but the reality is that the desired experience is not going to happen.
    The bottom line is that air travel will not see a significant up tic until the governments allow business to open up. Here in frigid country, out door dining is not going to be a pleasurable experience as the weather chills. Air travel is not done for the sake of the flight. It is done for what lies at the other end of the journey. Until the other end becomes available and fun, air travel will limp along.

  4. “The biggest problem is that most reported cases of the virus are only indications of exposure to the virus, not positive indication of infection.”

    PCR tests indicate active infection, defined as actively reproducing virus in patient. Antibody tests indicate whether patient has had active infection. Various tests have known positive or negative failure rates; none are perfect. Not sure what is meant by “indication of exposure to the virus,” so hopefully I can learn something here. What is meant by this phrase?

  5. Just a clarification on the N95 vs. KN95. Simply put, an N95 mask is one certified to US standards; a KN95 mask is one certified to the standards of China. Both (properly certified) are very affective. There are differences in the standards, but they are small. In fact, the KN95 has slight (very slightly) higher requirements. A proper mask to either should serve the same purpose.

    There *has* been problems not with KN95, but with cheap counterfeits *labeled* as KN95. Even some US hospitals have been swindled on this, and had to sometimes throw out millions of these fake KN95 masks. [US hospitals normally are required to buy N95, but during the pandemic mask shortage, you do what you have to.] Personally, either would be a big help. Wear them!

  6. I have been staying away–as much to the extent it is possible to do so–from anywhere that requires a mask simply because I find it very uncomfortable to wear one for more than a handful of minutes at a time. Until it’s not a requirement to wear a mask in public, and the travel restrictions are lifted, and a vaccine is available to the general public, I simply don’t see the point in traveling anywhere. And this has nothing to do with what I perceive the travel risk or the constitutionality of these rules to be, but rather the scientific consensus that covid is still a virus to be taken seriously and that all of the prudent mitigation steps taken simply elicit no desire in me to travel.

  7. This all comes down to what is acceptable risk. As pilots of small aircraft we accept a slightly elevated risk over automobile travel when we fly them. In general, airline travel has much lower risk than cars or light aircraft. The one airline sponsored study appears to be biased, flawed and cherry picked at best. And relies on 100% medical grade mask use when this is clearly in the case. This greatly reduces my trust in the airline industry and I no longer have valid information to make an informed choice. Currently I am avoiding travel and especially airlines. Next month I will be making a 2300 mile trip and will go by light aircraft when last time I made this trip by airline.

  8. It all depends. It depends on how fast one rebounds. At 78 the bounce back is not so good. So I wear a mask, stay in my sphere, not travel in confined environments with strangers, wash hands, stay away from isle 1 at the stores, waiting anxiously for the vaccine, and hoping to live that long, do video communications, and read AVweb. Inveterate worrywarts?

  9. At some point I need to travel to transport my 92 year old mom to my home state for the winter. But the quarantine associated with interstate travel makes this a pretty complicated decision given my work. Those rules are probably contributing to the very reduced air travel. But I’m not afraid of getting in a plane wearing a good mask and I appreciate Mr Bertorelli’s balanced take on what precautions make sense. I don’t really understand the resistance to masks. It’s a little unpleasant but one gets used to it and it could save someone else from a lonely death if I were carrying an infection I wasn’t aware of. Small price to pay to be kind to others.

    • Some people just find masks very uncomfortable to wear. It also interferes with thousands of years of human evolution by hiding one’s face, and some people find it psychologically disturbing to be around masked people. To be clear, I’m not arguing for or against their effectiveness or the constitutionality of mask mandates, but rather just pointing out why some people have a problem with masks. But just because someone is uncomfortable wearing a mask doesn’t mean they automatically stop being considerate of others as long as they just avoid going to public places.

  10. Like Raf I also will wait for a proven safe effective vaccine before dealing with the airport, TSA lines, boarding lines and the aircraft cabin environment. Mask policy will not be 100% in aircraft since people will want to eat, need to drink and the mask my slip if they sleep. Also would like to see passengers show proof of vaccination before boarding the aircraft. I am sure for many international flights such proof will be required by the destination country just like some international travel proof of other vaccinations may be required before entry at the destination.

    I do agree that a commercial aircraft cabin is probably one of the safest where social distancing is not maintained and exposure time is prolonged.

    I have a BFR coming up and that will be with myself and the instructor N95 masked, eye protection and with cabin vents to full outside air.

    If forced to fly, from what I read in the NPR link, Emirates would be my long haul choice since they seem to take the mask policy seriously by strictly enforcing N95 mask and the wearing of them. The picture accompanying the article (does not say what airline) was pretty frightening since some passengers did not have masks on and those that did were almost all wearing masks with significantly lower effectiveness than N95s. What I saw were single layer fiber or cloth masks or no mask.

    My take is that medical grade N95s do a pretty good job of protecting you. According to 3M product flyers that the additional weave layer in medical masks captures finer aerosolized particles. Industrial N95s help protect you by reducing the viral load you will inhale but do not complexly stop finely aerosolized viral particles. The ubiquitous single layer blue masks and fashion statement cloth masks meet most “requirements” that you wear a mask but do a much poorer job of filtering incoming and outgoing air. These do stop most larger coughed or sneezed globules. Don’t get me started on people wearing a bandana in place of a mask.

    Bottom line for me is that the mask, reduced close contact time and social distancing is to protect others with self protection as a side benefit. That is not taken into account when people complain about wearing masks because of discomfort giving as a reason for not wearing one that they are not that concerned about getting the virus or that masks do not work.

  11. The question of whether COVID-19 is transmissible during commercial aircraft flight is more complicated than the one United Airlines and DOD study cited by Mr. Bertorelli. There is a growing literature on this topic. See, for example, Khanh et al. Transmission of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 During Long-haul Flight. Emerging Infectious Diseases Volume 26, Number 11—November 2020; Speake et al. Flight-Associated Transmission of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 Emerging Infectious Diseases Volume 26, Number 12—December 2020, and Choi et al. In-Flight Transmission of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 Emerging Infectious Diseases Volume 26, Number 11—November 2020. All three papers are in the public domain. The papers are not clear on whether the index case or those who became subsequently infected wore masks.

    So, in my opinion, the science on this question is not settled.

    Regarding “masks”, they are well-established to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread. There is no scientific question on this topic, no matter how heated the rhetoric. And, yes, for a very long time, federal, state, and local governments in the US have been empowered to insist that citizens act in ways that limit the spread of potentially deadly infectious diseases. Which is also the case for the governments of all other developed nations.

    Contrary to Mr. Bertorelli’s statement, I believe that N95 respirators are not widely available to the general public. A quick search of the internet (including every major supplier of industrial safety supplies) and the shelves of big box store that used to stock N95 respirators confirms this. The lack of such respiratory protection is why CDC and other scrambled to develop methods for reusing disposable N95 respirators. As noted above, KN95 respirators are widely available but many on the market have failed to meet design specifications.

    It is true, as noted above, that not all persons tolerate masks. But, in industry and healthcare, masks have been required of, literally, millions of workers who have tolerated them without harm. Intolerance to mask use is not common and health-related reasons to avoid mask use is very rare.

    • It seems to vary depending on geographic location how available the xN95 masks are, just as it apparently varies how available paper products are. I wouldn’t judge overall availability by internet availability, since I have often found something sold out online but available at the local box store.

  12. Is it safe to go outside yet? Yes, it always has been. As long as you are not in close proximity to another human being, better yet, upwind.

    It is NOT safe to go inside any confined space with a multitude of people. Airlines/airliners were the initial super-spreaders of this pandemic. While global governments, airline executives, local, regional, national politicians of developed countries denied this pandemic reality, offering all sorts of statistics, forecasts, computer models, and a mixed message of misinformation, airliners filled with people were infecting the globe. There were a few other super-spreader modes of transmission such as cruise ships. But airlines/airliners did it faster, more effectively by offering transportation accessible to most average global citizens.

    It took about 90 days for the pandemic to mature enough that no matter how poor global misinformation was, with various policies that was based on this collective misinformation put into place, people were dying all over the planet as a result with no hope in sight. That infection rate followed with the death count, and overwhelmed medical facilities making it clear, this pandemic is real, and little to nothing of the policies up to that point were working. When the global lockdowns were first introduced within the next 45 days, some measure of infection and death rates improved. By May, the planet figured out, no matter what level of denial anyone wanted to take, for whatever reasons, without an effective vaccine, any crowded environment…airliners, bars, taverns, office buildings, schools, busses, cruise ships, homes, beaches, etc … ANY crowded environment that people chose to put themselves into caused the infection rates to skyrocket. And these facts are undeniably true closing in on month 10 and 229,000+ US deaths and still climbing. 75% of the country is seeing enormous increase of infection rates today.

    No matter how one wants to debate this pandemic, once any particular area moved from total lockdown to a community observed mitigation process of social distancing, masking, improved hygiene, and avoiding as much as possible a crowded environment, in every area on the planet who diligently did those inconvenient but necessary precautions, the pandemic infection rates leveled off and came down. As soon as any community got tired of those minimal requirements, the infection rates went up, and are on the rise no matter global location.

    Now we know, that us individuals have not only a responsibility for our own safety, our actions regarding anything we do, has a huge impact on family, friends, strangers, in laws and out law’s health.

    Global consideration for others than ourselves is not something the human race has a good track record of. This pandemic is forcing the planet’s population to wrestle with that big time. Yeah, we have had pandemics in the past. And we have the history to look at with how, when, and where we, as a global community handled that. That track record, looking out for the next person has never been particularly good.

    This pandemic is not going to fix that. But it has been enough of a revelation to graphically demonstrate attitudes, policies, and a benchmark for us to make a better informed decision to determine the best course of action for ourselves and collectively for our country, state, and local areas, should we decide to pull on the same collective rope at the same time.

    Cooperative teamwork for the betterment of our sphere of influence does not come naturally. Until a vaccine combined with successful therapeutics are developed, we will never get out of this rise in infection rates/deaths, as a result of traditional lifestyle choices we once had before Covid-19. At this point, we are Covid-19 worn out, and are looking for any and every reason to statistically show, being in close quarters with one another is safe.

    To me, the debate is mostly driven by us getting used to the daily infection and death rate just as we got used to the Vietnam War daily “box scores”. We got used to US military deaths ( unless it was a family member or friend), S, Vietnamese military deaths, guerilla deaths, Viet Cong deaths, and overall casualties. We got used to that environment, that exposure, with the inevitable desensitizing that results. We are at that point today.

    There is a balance of necessary mitigation, economics driven by that mitigation, and the need to work together in those inconvenient, frustrating, yet simple mitigation efforts to accomplish anything in the resurrection of the US economy. But having this pandemic continue at its present pace without improved community cooperation is preventing a resurrection of the economy too.

    We now know what the consequences are of opening the economy, combined with poor overall cooperation of the community within that opening, with the denial of the fact that crowded places, particularly indoors, exponentially causes an uncontrollable rise in community transmission. This is affecting every household, every economy, every health systems, and every government. Is this the way of life we want to get used to?

    Airlines require at least 75-80% load factors to be anywhere near profitable. But to get those load factors, one has to be shoulder to shoulder, face to face with other human beings. It is probably the most close quartered situation anyone can be in. Until there is some sort of Covid-19 efficacious vaccine, I will not put myself in the unavoidable position of being that close to another human being. And if these load factors rise to anything close to 50%, I suspect it will be easy to see the rise in Covid-19 community transmission. How the airlines will survive this period pre-vaccine, and for that matter the US economy as a result will be interesting. But there is no doubt in my mind, do back to what we used to do, get what we used to and are presently getting.

    There is a strong possibility we are getting used to death rates such as these and it is OK with this carnage until we get a US available vaccine…which will make it all better…as long as we personally do not die. Or a loved one dies. Or a friend dies. Getting old has never been more hazardous than now. Achieving old age is now far more difficult also with Covid-19. The aging, but demographically economically strong part of the US population is not used to that fact. Welcome to the new normal.

  13. I agree that the airplane cabin environment, with its filters and air circulation, is probably safe. The problem is what you have to get through to get there… Ubers/cabs, crowded lines at the airport for check-in and/or security, crowded baggage claims, waiting around in the terminal with hundreds of fellow travellers, etc etc.

  14. Excuse me!

    Viet Nam War, November 1, 1955 – April 30, 1975, An estimated 47,434 American soldiers were killed in battle. An additional 10,786 non-combatants died in accidents or disease, totaling 58,220 deaths, in about 20 years.

    9/11 fatalities 2977. “Acceptable risk”?

    In COVID’s world, No such thing as “acceptable risk”. If others are doing it (no mask, breaking distancing), then it must be an “acceptable risk”. Covid-19 fatalities, 223,000 in 10 months, “Acceptable risk”?

    What’s wrong here?

  15. Speaking of the Vietnam war and America’s loss of the construct the U.S. was trying to accomplish there, if you visit the VVM in D.C. and silently take in the profundity of the Wall, where the names seem endless and the deaths span a 14 year period of time, it can be quite moving to say the least.

    The 10 months of American deaths directly related to Covid-19 this year would would fill 4 memorial walls like the VVM in Washington. Wear comfortable shoes, you’ll be there awhile. Actually, pack the motorhome – we’re still adding names.

    I’d fly commercial today if I had somewhere to go…

  16. Although the wife has made a couple, this week was my first “COVID” commercial flight, a two leg LAX-RDU (nonstop? Ha, you jest!) on American’s A321s with every seat occupied. Masks, of course, and limited amenities, but tolerable. Tomorrow’s return will doubtless be a duplicate.

    At 81, we’re both in the higher risk zone for – call it accelerated fatality – but by the same token indefinite suspension of life activities carries a higher cost for us. Acceptable risk is NOT a concept to be removed from any action evaluation.

    If I had to encapsulate my view of the whole COVID situation I would characterize it as a classic example of mission creep. The initial objective of blunting the rapid spread to avoid saturation of medical facilities was both logical and eminently doable, and we did it. But naturally that had to expand, becoming a holy crusade to “crush COVID”, a suitably amorphous non-objective objective expandable without limit in scope and time. We now have a juggernaut motivated by “the sum of all fears”.

    • “…a holy crusade to ‘crush COVID’, a suitably amorphous non-objective objective expandable without limit…”
      A bureaucrat’s utopia.

      • Sadly it would not have had to come to “a holy crusade…” and “a bureaucrat’s utopia” had the president ever taken it as seriously as he does his re-election.

  17. And yet — one famous flight from Greece, packed with lockdown end rejoicing Brits, had an estimated five positive youngsters (university age) on it. Luckily a switched on doctor realised what had happened an issued an alert — all passengers were tested and around 35 in total had Covid 19 positive tests come back.
    Airlines always used to deliberately limit the amount of fresh air in cabin systems to reduce fuel consumption by a point or two — the message that they must no longer do so seems to have some trouble getting through…
    Personally I find masks too uncomfortable to wear for any longer than a trip to the shops, so busses, trains and planes will have to wait for my custom.
    I went to the dentist last week, and they were kitted out like astronauts, except they did not have their own air bottles. The dentist said they had thought about it but the logistics were just too much. Like most medical pros, she had done her three month unit on virology in training and agreed that the size of the virus and the size of the mesh of most masks do not match — but also said virus’s almost always need a vector to enter the body and it seemed human breath (not saliva or blood) was the main vector so that is why masks work. All advice given with the warning look given to pesky patients — I get it often.