In a desperate effort to survive, airlines are trying to convince people that measures such as mandatory use of face masks and hospital-like air filters make airplanes safer than many closed places on the ground.
But they are not succeeding.
Studies show that instead of accepting that flights can be safe, more and more people are expressing skepticism. In the United States, stocks leveled off last month after exhibiting a small rebound, in what was a reaction to new outbreaks of the virus.
Globally, the activity decreased by 85% compared to a year ago, according to sector figures.
The impact on the airlines is extremely serious and several have already declared bankruptcy. If there is no short-term rally, others will follow that path.
The four largest airlines in the United States lost a total of $ 10 billion from April to June. Its executives say they will survive, but they lowered their expectations regarding the market revival.
“We all hoped that by the winter (boreal) the virus would have run its course,” said Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly. “Obviously, we were very wrong.”
When Consumer Reports asked more than 1,000 people in June about what they thought of various activities during the pandemic, 70% said the flights were very or somewhat unsafe. They felt it was safer to go to a hospital emergency room or queue to vote.
A study commissioned by an organization in the aeronautical sector determined that what most worries people is the possibility of sitting next to someone infected.
John Kontak, a Phoenix teacher, said that was his fear when he recently boarded a crowded American Airlines flight to visit his parents in Ohio.
“I don’t know anything about the person sitting next to me,” Kontak said. “They put their financial interests above the safety of the passengers. Next time, I’d rather drive than fly. It is more secure. It’s something that I can control.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that sitting six feet (two meters) from other passengers, often for hours, can increase the risk of contracting COVID-19. But they note that most viruses and germs do not move around much on airplanes because of the way the air circulates.
Standard & Poor said this week that the outlook for commercial aviation has gone “from bad to worse” and that global air traffic is down 70% this year. In May, S&P had forecast that, in the worst case, it would decline by 55%.
“It’s going to be a slower and more uneven recovery than we expected,” said S&P analyst Philip Baggaley.
The International Air Transport Association forecasts that airlines will lose $ 84 billion this year, in what will be the worst year in their history. He added that the sector will not normalize until 2024.
In Asia, where the outbreak was controlled earlier than in Europe and the United States, airlines are doing better. China’s domestic flights are already two-thirds of the level they were a year ago. In the United States, the level is a third of that of 2019.
In Europe, the activity was reduced in June by 94% compared to the same month last year. There were about 4 million passengers, compared to 217 million the previous year.
Traffic spiked a bit when two dozen European countries opened their borders to each other in early June, but in several nations there are outbreaks of the virus and restrictions are again being imposed.
In the United States, traffic rebounded after falling 95% in April, but was 74% lower in June and 72% in August.
The sector was going through the best moment in its history when the pandemic arrived thanks to an increase in demand, less competition as a result of mergers and new income from the fees they charge for a number of services.
Among traditional airlines, the big ones are sure to survive. But Britain’s Flyby ceased to exist in March. The two largest airlines in Latin America, Avianca and Latam, have declared bankruptcy. The same did Aeromexico. And Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia are in court trying to reconfigure their debts.
The big US airlines are surviving on government help and loans.
They offer guarantees that the planes are safe. They require passengers to wear face masks and clean the cabins more thoroughly, disinfecting the seats with a spray.
“You can smell the disinfectant. They clean everything from top to bottom: Seats, windows, even light knobs and rack grab handles, ”said Jason Bounds, veteran flight attendant for Delta Air Lines.
Some airlines, such as Delta, Southwest, JetBlue, and Alaska, leave seats unoccupied so there are distances between passengers. United, American and Spirit do not, saying that it is impossible to maintain distances on a flight.
Most flights depart with numerous empty seats. But there are crowded flights that alarm passengers.
Carol Braddick, a business consultant who splits her time between Phoenix and England, says she became so concerned after a trip to the UK on American that she was tested for COVID-19 upon arrival.
“The person next to me drank the whole trip and was yelling at a friend sitting behind him. They screamed the whole trip, ”Braddick said. “The combination of alcohol, yelling and not wearing a mask is unacceptable. And the flight attendants did nothing. “
Braddick said he called off a pair of European getaways he had planned for this summer.
“The new reality is that we will make fewer trips, with longer stays, and we will be much more selective with the airline we travel with,” he said.
Nathan Ellgren (Washington) contributed to this report.