America is heading into the July 4 weekend with a reckless disregard for the health and safety of airline passengers.
Across large parts of the country a surge in coronavirus cases is combining with a sudden surge in domestic air travel, encouraged by heavily discounted seat prices.
The Trump administration’s abdication of responsibility for promoting recommended guidelines to contain the spread of the pandemic has left airlines and airports without coherent national standards to minimize the risks to passengers.
As a result, this holiday weekend could spawn a nightmare scenario in which the virus is able to repeat the original pattern of its spread via air travel, but instead of flying in from abroad it now has an open pathway to cities across North America.
The ultimate responsibility for the safety of passengers lies with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. For months now it has been evident that Chao has been keeping faith with the Trump do-nothing policy toward national health safety standards. Like her husband, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, corporate interests have always had more influence with her than those of consumers.
Chao has frustrated every attempt by lawmakers, aviation industry leaders and passenger rights advocates to carefully control the return of domestic air travel with specific guidelines for social distancing, mask wearing and the deep cleaning of airports and airplanes.
Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut who, with Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts has been demanding action from Secretary Chao, told the Daily Beast: “Six months into this pandemic there are still no federal standards or federal enforcement in air safety. This total lack of leadership in the midst of an ongoing crisis is unconscionable.”
Faced with mounting pressure for action and the prospect of far higher passenger numbers at airports this weekend, Chao issued a last-minute list of recommendations for action by airports and airlines.
These included the wearing of face masks “everywhere in the air transportation environment” and “promoting social distancing.”
Senators Blumenthal and Markey responded, calling the recommendations “unenforceable and woefully inadequate. We need federally enforceable mandates to keep the travelling public safe.”
None of the measures were made mandatory, and one of the recommendations was so lacking in specifics or in any understanding of the resources needed to implement it that it looked half-baked: “Collecting passenger contact information to enable notification in the event of suspected or confirmed exposure to COVID-19, a process known as contact tracing.”
Paul Hudson, the president of the activist group FlyersRights, told The Daily Beast: “President Trump has said that we are in a war with a silent enemy, the coronavirus. That war is now in its sixth month, and under Secretary Chao’s leadership at the Department of Transportation the virus has thrived.
“Unrestricted air travel has been the way the virus spread globally. Secretary Chao has so far refused to mandate the adoption of the basic CDC guidelines for masking, social distancing and sanitizing. Airlines can do whatever they want and the result has been confusion, chaos and fear.”
Airline analysts are surprised by the sudden strength of the rebound in demand for domestic air travel in America—reflecting, in part, the pent-up frustration of a population used to easy mobility and keen to reclaim it, regardless of the risks involved.
A key measure of passenger demand is the number of seats available. This has become especially significant as U.S. airlines, with many thousands of their airplanes parked, assess how quickly they should get them back in the skies.
According to the international airline data bank OAG, during June the number of seats for sale per week by U.S. airlines leapt from just over six million to just over nine million. The last pre-pandemic high point was in March, with a seasonal norm of nearly 22 and a half million seats available. In other words, demand was suddenly surging past 40 percent of normal.
John Grant, an OAG analyst, told the Daily Beast, “This week Delta alone have added back another 400,000 plus seats, mainly from their hubs.”
Improbably, a summer boom now looks possible: Southwest, with the most domestic flights, now expects to be flying 62 percent of its pre-virus schedule in July and American Airlines 55 percent.
(In China, where the shut down of domestic flights occurred earlier, scheduled seats were back at around 80 percent of normal by the end of May.)
Alarmingly, what nobody foresaw was that if virus outbreaks started spiking in states that had been casual in their public health precautions it would coincide with Americans being ready again to get back in the air in those same states, creating the potential for a perfect storm.
The willingness to fly again is being fueled in part by extraordinarily low fares as the airlines resume intercity schedules. For example:
In Dallas, where new cases of the coronavirus are accelerating to nearly 600 a day, direct flights to New York from July 9 thru July 15 are on sale by American Airlines for $197 round trip and to Chicago for $89 round trip.
In Houston, now experiencing a “severe” outbreak that is on the verge of overwhelming hospitals, direct flights to New York are available on United for around $300 round trip and to Chicago, also on United, as low as $75 round trip.
In Arizona, where new cases are approaching 5,000 a day, the hospitals are overwhelmed and the governor was forced to reverse policy and order bars, pools, gyms, and theaters to close, direct flights from Phoenix to New York are averaging around $300 round trip on both United and American, and from Phoenix to Chicago flights on American are on sale for between $217 and $357.
In Florida, where counties have been left to set their own safeguards as cases soar and where, for example, the beaches and bars in Palm Beach county will be closed for the July 4 weekend, people could be tempted to head to beaches in the northeast by the offers of round trip flights from Fort Lauderdale to New York on United at $97, or to the northern lakes with trips to Chicago on Jet Blue, United and American at prices below $100.
The pandemic struck as the major U.S. carriers were enjoying nearly a decade of soaring demand and record profits. Part of that success was the result of innovative smart technology better able to match supply with demand. They were operating a new kind of oligopoly in which old-fashioned price fixing by humans was replaced by algorithms. When all the airline bean counters had the same software it didn’t require human collusion to find the optimal price for a seat—at any time of the day or night looking months ahead.
That comity is now over as each airline fights for market share. And they are doing that in a space ungoverned by limits to enforce health safety, with potentially disastrous results. Airports and airlines are setting their own rules in a haphazard rush.
Two of the major airlines, Delta and Southwest, are guaranteeing empty middle seats until the end of September. United is not capping the number of seats sold but is notifying passengers if more than 70 percent of the seats are booked and offering no-cost changes to less densely-packed flights.
American Airlines has emerged as the bare-knuckle player. American has been shedding overseas routes, particularly in Asia, and depending more on domestic routes for profits. They are selling up to 85 percent of the seats on any flight—which to most passengers feels full.
American’s pilots are clearly not happy with this. Their union has proposed that the government should buy enough seats to guarantee nobody should have to sit next to somebody they are not traveling with. That idea fell on deaf ears.
The Daily Beast asked why these packed flights could not be boarded from the rear forward to avoid dangerously intimate logjams in the aisle. An American spokesperson responded, “that really only works if everyone is present at the start of boarding, and that is generally not the case.”
The logic of that is bewildering—unless the real reason is the extra revenue generated by priority boarding. And, as if that were not enough they added, “As more people continue to travel customers may notice that flights are booked to capacity starting July 1.” Passengers may re-book on less crowded flights “when available.” “May notice” indeed: we can only imagine what it feels like to reach a gate and find out. Never mind how these caveats are going to be transacted—and litigated.
That brings us back to the indifference of secretary Chao to the games played by airlines. As Paul Hudson says, “Passenger rights have suffered under secretary Chao as the few passenger protections are now only enforced—if at all—in cases of ‘egregious and repetitive’ violations.”
Consumer Reports, the independent consumer rights watchdog, has made repeated public appeals to Secretary Chao to act on both passenger health security and getting support against sharp practices in the crisis like the attempt by airlines to offer vouchers for future flights rather than pay cash refunds for flights they cancel.
William J. McGee, aviation adviser to CR, told the Daily Beast: “Secretary Chao’s lack of action is troubling, particularly since past secretaries have acted swiftly during crises, as after 9/11.
“Her most critical responsibility is to ensure the safety of the traveling public and all those who work in the travel industry, and she is failing in that regard.”
Like so many in the failing Trump administration, Chao is a disciple of benign neglect, happy to do nothing whatsoever to tackle grave risks to the public—apparently for ideological reasons that only people who live in their own bubble of comforts can afford. Chao’s own private wealth has made husband Mitch one of the wealthiest senators. Mitch, aka the Grim Reaper, once boasted that 395 bills are sitting on his desk that have no chance of passing while he’s controlling the Senate. Today, that includes a new stimulus package to help families stricken by the pandemic that was passed by the House. Happily together in the world of do-nothings, the McConnells are a deadly duo. They’re not in charge. The virus is.