Travelers make their way through ticketing and TSA inspection at Pittsburgh International Airport on May 7, 2020 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
The CEO of Frontier Airlines, based in Denver, said "if someone is uncompliant, we will eventually divert an airplane."
One of the biggest challenges revolves around the viability of social distancing at airports and onboard aircraft. Many industry executives say it isn't feasible. There's little agreement on standards. Industry leaders are insisting on consistency around the world so passengers aren't confused.
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"It's impossible to socially distance in an airport," says John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of London Heathrow Airport. The hub is in the process of rolling out Plexiglas screens at check-in desks, encouraging the use of face masks, and deploying more automation to limit the interaction between staff and passengers.
Mr. Holland-Kaye is working with his counterparts at airports in Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Sydney to implement standardized procedures. "If we wait until some global organization has agreed it for 172 countries, it'll never happen," he said.
Some carriers have promised to keep the middle seat open, to preserve some sense of social distancing aboard. That hasn't been too onerous, since there are so few fliers these days.
Executives say that's not viable for the long haul. They question its effectiveness, and say carriers can't afford the cost of leaving those seats empty. Air New Zealand Ltd., the country's flag carrier, said that to comply with social distancing, just under 50% of seats on a turboprop and only 65% of seats on an A320 narrowbody can be filled. Flights need to be 77% full on average for airlines to break even, according to the International Air Transport Association, which estimates that fares would have to climb 50% to offset the cost of leaving so much empty space on an A320.
With airlines having cut down on the frequency of flights, some planes have started filling up.
United Airlines Holdings Inc. earlier this month said it would start giving passengers advance notice if they're scheduled to fly on a full flight, allowing them to make other plans. The airline shifted its policy after images on social media of a packed flight earlier this month sparked outrage.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D. Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee wrote to major U.S. airline trade groups last week, urging them to do more to space passengers out. Airline executives say they can't keep that up forever.
"I would hope that we don't have unnecessary regulations," Southwest Airlines Co. Chief Executive Gary Kelly says. "It's really not a viable intermediate or long-term solution to cap a flight at 60%."
For now, however, Southwest is limiting the number of seats it will fill on any given flight. When it sees bookings start to approach that threshold — something that has started to happen several times a week for some routes — it will add another flight if there's enough demand to cover operating costs like fuel, Mr. Kelly said. "We at least want the revenue," he said.
Earlier this month, Frontier Airlines, thought it hit on a solution. Chief Executive Barry Biffle says he believes keeping middle seats empty does little for safety if passengers wear masks. To give passengers peace of mind, though, while not forcing the airline to operate money-losing flights, the airline created a new offering: for a $39 fee, a passenger could ensure being seated next to an empty middle seat.
Lawmakers wrote to Frontier to object. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.) suggested federal guidelines might be necessary to ensure distancing on planes during a subcommittee hearing, broadcast online.
Nick Calio, chief of Airlines for America, an airline lobbying group, protested that a rule wouldn't be necessary.
"Hopefully the market will take care of that," he said.
"Well, it didn't with Frontier," Ms. Klobuchar responded. That evening, Frontier rescinded its plan.
The carrier isn't the only one that has encouraged passengers to spend more to secure their peace of mind. Ryanair last week asked passengers to purchase fast-track access through airport security and priority boarding to help avoid crowding.
In China, where domestic flights have resumed in significant numbers, aviation authorities haven't publicly announced social-distancing measures. Most airports and airlines require passengers to wear masks, and to have their temperature checked. Some airlines, including China Southern Airlines Co., are preventing passengers from sitting next to one another.
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Demand in China lags far behind capacity, despite airlines offering discounts of up to 90% on many routes. China's civil aviation authority said last week that passenger numbers in April were down 69% from a year ago at 16.7 million. A five-day holiday at the start of May provided a boost, but not the dramatic spike in travel demand that usually characterizes China's national vacations.
Airlines have started cleaning planes more thoroughly and more often, using equipment to mist cabins with disinfectant and wiping down all surfaces between every flight, not just when jets are parked overnight.
Delta Air Lines Inc. has started building in extra time between flights for cleaning, and says it plans to keep the procedures in place indefinitely.
"We'll take delays if we have to," said Bill Lentsch, Delta's chief customer experience officer.
Analysts at airline data firm OAG estimated that with new cleaning procedures, carriers might need to leave two hours for connections, up from 45 minutes for domestic flights and 90 for international connections.
Another big change: Where you can fly. Widebody planes that flew lucrative long haul international routes are being parked in droves, many permanently. Delta said it will retire its 18 Boeing 777 jets, which it used to launch ambitious global routes like Los Angeles to Sydney, this year.
Last year, global airlines competed to offer flights so long they tested human endurance, like Qantas's experiments with direct service from New York and London to Sydney — a 19-hour journey. Now Project Sunrise, as the effort was dubbed, is on indefinite hold.
U.S. airlines like Delta, United and American Airlines Group Inc. had assembled global networks, securing lucrative airport slots and signing joint venture deals with global partners. Executives now believe international travel will be some of the last to recover.
American has slashed international flying for the summer and has delayed the launch of new international routes it planned for this year. Flights from Philadelphia to Casablanca, Morocco, Chicago to Krakow, Poland, and Seattle to Bangalore, India, are being pushed back to 2021.
"We're not going to be flying the same airplanes to the same places that we flew in the past," American Chief Executive Doug Parker told pilots during a town hall earlier this month.
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