Air Travel Trends – From Pandemic to Endemic

According to a recent MasterCard study, for the first time since the pandemic began in March 2020, business flight bookings have actually exceeded 2019 levels (the number of flight bookings made by business travelers in April 2022 versus the same period in 2019) and leisure travelers in April of this year are within 7% of the number of passengers booking trips further from home than in April of 2019 (that is, trips greater than 4,300 km). At their current pace, an estimated 1.5 billion more passengers globally will fly in 2022 versus 2021. Air travel recovery is well and truly underway!

Midway into 2022, three clear trends related to air travel have been manifested as the Covid 19 pandemic transitions to an endemic.

  • Passenger Loads Are Up
  • Facemasks Are Down
  • Covid 19 Infections Are Up
Business travel has already exceeded 2019 levels

Passenger Loads are Up

Air traffic is up in April 2022 – more than 63 million passengers passed through the US Transportation Security Administration aviation checkpoints in the month – the highest passenger number totals since pre-pandemic April 2019. Airlines are taking advantage of the resultant demand surge to institute higher airfares – which are partially a result of the war in Ukraine, and the increase in world oil prices. There will be little or no downward pressure on jet fuel prices until there is greater crude oil supply. A new source of supply would also serve to reduce the currently inflated value that Russia receives for its oil presently being used to fuel their war machine in Ukraine – hastening the opportunity to end that war. It would also give the world some breathing space to invest in an ‘All of the Above’ energy approach (Oil, Natural Gas, Solar, Wind, Nuclear, Hydrogen, Water and Geothermal) in the interim which would be good for everybody.

Face Masks Are Down

A Federal court ruling on the face mask mandate means that face masks are now optional on airplanes, trains and public transport. The trouble across the world with any mandate is enforcement – which on all aircraft was left to the flight attendants, not an ideal situation for them or the traveling public. My own experience with the uneven enforcement of mask wearing was maddening. Depending on the airline, flight attendants on some carriers were stalking the aisles, waking sleeping passengers in Business Class to tell them to put on their mask; while on other airlines the crews had a laissez faire attitude throughout the cabin and could not be bothered being mask enforcers. Given that the HEPA filters fitted in today’s modern jetliners filter out more than 97% of the impurities in the aircraft cabin’s air, it was moot in any case. Air rage in 2021 attained unprecedented levels with 70% of the incidents associated with passenger reaction to face mask mandates. Now that masks are optional, every flight will have a mix of passengers who are wearing a mask and those who are not – creating a new potential for inflight conflicts. A solution that I personally endorse is to divide passenger seating into masked and maskless seating zones – like was formerly done for smoking and non-smoking customers. This could help reduce anxiety amongst those who would rather choose to wear a face mask while appeasing those who would rather go maskless by seating near like-minded travelers.

Dividing passenger seating into two zones could be a good idea

Covid 19 Infections Are Up

The reversal of the mask mandate notwithstanding, Covid 19 Cases are increasing – creeping higher over the past month with the seven-day moving average now more than double what it was in late March. But these numbers are somewhat misleading in their severity since the majority of new infections are typically a less potent variant of the Covid virus or are being detected by ‘at home’ testing that are likely not reported to central authorities in any event. Moreover, with substantial portions of most major populations either fully vaccinated or having had it already, there is substantial natural immunity. It means that there are likely going to be many people that are infected and contagious going forward. With no mandatory face mask barriers to reduce transmission risk, more people will be infected when traveling, although infection transmission on flights themselves will be low due to the air circulation and filtration systems in place.

In short, we are adjusting to a world where the remnants of the Corona Virus will continue to infect and reinfect people but owing to the fact that many variants of the virus exist that are not as potent as the original, more people have had and survived one or more of the variants, and many more are fully vaccinated, the endemic level path ahead looks infinitely brighter.

James W. Foster, Chairman, AirlinePros