The airline and travel industry are wrestling with how to promote their struggling sectors in the run-up to the usually-busy Thanksgiving holiday, against the backdrop of stern new CDC recommendations released Thursday warning to avoid travel as coronavirus cases spiral uncontrolled.
“CDC is recommending against travel during the Thanksgiving period,” Henry Walke, the CDC’s Covid-19 incident manager, said during a briefing Thursday, adding that the health agency is especially concerned about “transportation hubs.”
The agency’s recommendation lines up with a growing number of new state restrictions and warnings in response to record numbers of new cases and more than 250,000 U.S. deaths, as well as disease experts’ concerns that even small indoor gatherings of people from different locations could spread the virus further.
Thanksgiving is typically a banner time of year for the airline industry, which has seen rock bottom revenues in 2020. While the volume of travelers will be much less than in previous years, air carriers have still been hoping for a healthy uptick.
During a press conference held a week ago, Nick Calio, CEO of Airlines for America, said “I hope you’re flying somewhere” for Thanksgiving. “I am,” he continued.
“Flying is safe, I will state that categorically,” Calio said.
But by Thursday, as Covid cases and spread spiked ever higher, Calio had adopted a more cautious tone, though he still insisted the risk of being infected on board a plane is low. On a joint holiday travel call with TSA, Calio said airlines want travelers to “make an informed decision.”
He suggested they look to research like a recent Harvard study that found that with a layered approach — including social distancing, masks and air filtration — the risk of coronavirus transmission aboard a plane is low.
Several additional studies have found the same, although the science is far from settled and other researchers have found suspected cases of transmission on board planes.
The mood was more grim at a U.S. Travel Association press conference later in the day. “We’re in an unprecedented and dangerous time,” said Michael Parkinson, a doctor who serves on an advisory panel for the group.
Roger Dow, the association’s president, said “I’d rather have a little less travel now to come back more quickly down the road.” However, the 74-year-old Dow said he himself will be traveling from Florida to Maryland for Thanksgiving.
TSA chief David Pekoske repeatedly side-stepped questions about whether the agency would discourage holiday travel, saying travelers should “make their own decisions.”
“The decision to travel is up to the traveler,” he said. “And my best advice to the traveler is to consider the recommendations that the Centers for Disease Control have made, that their local public health officials have made and any consultations that they think are appropriate with their own physicians.”
TSA expects to see travel volumes that are consistent with the Columbus Day weekend, meaning more than 1 million people might be screened on at least one of the days. Pekoske said the highest volumes are expected the Wednesday before and the Sunday after the holiday.
Those projections pale in comparison to the record-breaking years preceding it. Last year, for example, the agency screened more than 26 million passengers between Friday, Nov. 22 and Monday, Dec. 2. And airlines were operating 859 more flights per day than they did in 2018.
TSA’s workforce continues to be hard-hit by the virus despite the sagging numbers. The agency has had 2,981 employees test positive for Covid-19 and nine die since March, according to statistics updated Thursday. One screening contractor also died from the virus. Currently, there are 557 TSA employees with active infections.
“And so that’s a high number, and I’m very cognizant of that number,” said Pekoske.
He implored travelers to wear masks, despite the lack of a federal mandate. TSA also is trying to shift to a more touchless screening process to help reduce the spread of Covid-19 at airports, he said. For instance, the agency has introduced new 3D computed tomography machines at some airports, which make it easier to see the content of carry-on bags alleviating the need for agents to handle laptops and other personal items.
There are also now acrylic barriers between ID checkers and travelers and machines that allow travelers to scan their own documents at many airports, among other measures, Pekoske said.
Airports also have done “their level best” to make sure airports were clean and safe, said Kevin Burke, CEO of Airports Council International – North America during Thursday’s TSA press call. Some are even offering on-site testing, he said.
Given the safety precautions being taken, it’s up to the public to decide whether they want to travel and do so “with great caution,” he said.