Future Tense

What Will Air Travel Look Like After the Pandemic?

A Slack roundtable about the future of flying.

Four airplanes sit on a tarmac.
Grounded planes at Brisbane Airport on April 21 in Brisbane, Australia Jono Searle/Getty Images

America is grounded on account of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photos of thousands of airliners crammed onto unused runways and any available tarmac space take place in our national lockdown’s gallery of eerie images. Domestic passenger traffic numbers are down about 95 percent from a year earlier. Airlines have canceled most flights as they lose tens of millions of dollars a day, and there is little indication that demand for air travel will pick up anytime soon. The federal government did step in to provide the industry with $25 billion in emergency grants and loans to preserve the nation’s circulatory system and prevent a total collapse—aid conditioned upon the airlines continuing to serve all their domestic markets and avoiding any layoffs until September.

Against this backdrop, Future Tense editorial director Andrés Martinez invited three aviation experts to talk on Slack about when, and how, Americans might take flight again. Seth Kaplan is the transportation analyst for NPR’s Here & Now, the author of Glory Lost and Found: How Delta Climbed From Despair to Dominance in the Post-9/11 Era , and co-host of the Airlines Confidential podcast.* Benét Wilson is the credit card editor for the Points Guy. She’s a veteran aviation journalist who has written for such publications as USA Today and Aviation Daily and is known among her peers as the aviation queen. Christopher Schaberg is the Dorothy Harrell Brown distinguished professor of English at Loyola University–New Orleans and the author of The End of Airports.

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Andrés Martinez: Seth, let me start with you on an, um, easy question: When do you think we will get back to 2019 levels (or those of January, for that matter, when we saw a 5 percent increase in passenger traffic of air travel)?

Seth Kaplan: We’ve never seen anything like this. In fact, not only is this worse than each of the prior crises (9/11, SARS, the Great Recession, etc.)—it’s worse than all of them combined. The answer to when we will return to something resembling normal really depends on the course of the pandemic itself, when there will be a vaccine, etc. If you could tell me the answer to that, I could tell you what will happen with aviation. But it’s difficult to imagine a nearly normal year before 2022, if not 2023.

Benét Wilson: Another big thing is airlines winning the trust of travelers by ensuring that planes are clean enough and there are enough proper social distancing protocols in place, from the time people enter the airport to the time they’re on board in their seats. That’s going to be a challenge.

Christopher Schaberg: Yes, Benét has hit on a key issue: There’s public health, and then there’s personal risk. Both of these collide intensely at airports and on airplanes.

Andrés: In recent years, we all entered into a pact with airlines: Cram however many of us as you need to onto the back of those planes to keep fares low. That’s been the basis of the democratization of flight (though we still complain about being crammed in). Benét, is the current crisis going to result in the end of that bargain? Do you think we are going to see flying again become an elite pursuit, with lowest fares to fly across the country starting at a couple grand to accommodate social distancing concerns? Or will all this pass?

Benét: I’m old enough to have flown regularly on airlines in the pre-deregulation age. My father was an Air Force officer, and we traveled the world back then, when air travel was mostly for the rich. I can envision a scenario where fares will go up, making air travel less accessible. Airlines need to keep butts in seats and their balance books in the black. Frontier had to walk back charging travelers for an empty middle seat. But when you squeeze, that toothpaste is coming out, one way or another.

Andrés: Chris, you recently wrote a moving ode to empty airports. We always assumed there was an inevitability about the continued expansion of travel and shrinking of the world. But did your ruminations about empty airports make you—should they make us—question those assumptions?

Christopher: The unknowns right now are so wildly beyond anyone’s calculations or control. It’s hard to say. But we are now realizing just how much faith we had—for so long!—in the “ongoingness” of air travel basically as a static enterprise. Now we’re suddenly faced with a wide range of possibilities, from back to the status quo on the one side to a near-total wind-down of commercial flight on the other. And it really seems like anything in between could occur.

I think we may have reached—or even crossed—a threshold of growth that is (and has been, frankly) unsustainable. For several decades it seemed like unlimited growth was entirely possible and inevitable (speaking of commercial flight specifically, here), and now we’re having to reassess the assumptions that made such growth believable and possible. It’s hard for me to see how we’ll simply return to the level of flights from a few months ago—and keep growing—because COVID-19 has given a jolt to the system—a jolt that is also connected (if not directly) to broader environmental issues surrounding flight, which are not going away but are only foregrounded now with cleaner and quieter skies, etc.

Andrés: True, flight shaming due to climate was starting to be a bit of a thing pre-pandemic, especially in Europe. Seth, do you think airlines have been worried about this environmental concern as a long-term threat to their business?

Seth: It had certainly moved from the back of their minds to the forefront. An existential threat? I don’t think most of them considered it that. But a long-term threat to one degree or another? Absolutely. Until Greta Thunberg’s journey, I don’t think very many people viewed global travel by air as anything other than aspirational—a force for good. If it’s becoming socially unacceptable among any meaningful number of people—something to be ashamed of—that’s unhelpful for airlines. It’s a question of degree, and I think the best bet now is a measurable but not overwhelming avoidance of flying by some people.

Christopher: It seems like we’ve kind of moved from flight shame to flight fear, but these two things might become increasingly conflated—and equally existentially dangerous for airlines.

Benét: Last week I drove from Baltimore to my family home in San Antonio. I dropped off the car at San Antonio International Airport and looked at everything with the coronavirus lens. Will I use those water bottle fill stations? How will we social distance at TSA checkpoints? How will bins and checkpoint areas be cleaned? How will eateries and retail handle passengers? So many questions that need to be answered.

Andrés: You brought up the Frontier Airlines episode from this week. They wanted to charge passengers $39 to block middle seats; there was an outcry; they backtracked. That reminded me of an interesting story Richard Aboulafia wrote for Future Tense on how the industry has always had an unwritten rule that thou shalt not compete on safety grounds. But in a pandemic environment, it’s going to be hard to distinguish between marketing for comfort and for safety. Is that business class pod just a way to get a nice sleep on your way to London or a means of preserving your life?

Benét: I’m looking at that JetBlue Mint seat with the door I flew on in a whole new light. Same with other airlines that have pods. I feel sorry for the airlines having to walk that fine line between comfort and safety. I fear there will be a few more stumbles of this sort before we settle into a new normal.

Seth: What’s interesting is that a few airlines around the world have, for several years, allowed customers to bid to be seated next to any empty seats, and of course there was no outcry when it was only a question of comfort, not hoping to avoid a deadly virus. Now, granted, the middle seat on Frontier is only 18 inches wide, not 6 feet, so it’s reasonable to say it’s selling only a false sense of security, not true security, anyway. But to Aboulafia’s point, if it had already been offering to block middle seats for $39 prior to all this, that would be different. To the larger point: Decades ago, if you asked fliers what they cared about when they chose an airline, they would mention safety alongside price and schedule. In recent years, they wouldn’t, not because they didn’t care about safety but because they took for granted that all airlines were basically quite safe. Now we see airlines sort of competing, however cordially, for which one provides the most social distance in an environment not designed for social distancing. At some point, maybe after there’s a vaccine, that will start to fade again as a marketing tool, so to speak, but just the fact that we’re there, however temporarily it might be, is remarkable.

Andrés: Beyond the issue of fares needing to match supply and demand, which we alluded to above, do you guys think this crisis will accelerate other trends we were already seeing in aviation?

Seth: I think consolidation is somewhat back in play, because regulators are more likely to approve a merger or acquisition if companies can argue that absent it, one company (if not both) would go out of business anyway. U.S. airlines couldn’t, with a straight face, in recent years, claim to face any existential threats. Now they can. I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but it’s more likely because of that.

Christopher: It seems like one thing we could see (this is a bit dystopian, perhaps), is a stark two-cabin model where $$$ first-class seats have even more space between them, and then in back (after a severe dividing wall) there are the standing chairs (remember those?) for steerage. This probably won’t happen, but I’ll bet at least one airline is looking into it.

Benét: I remember how airlines pulled back on free meals after 9/11, going toward a buy- on-board model. We’re already seeing airlines taking away that option, along with alcohol too.

Seth: Yes, I think we can forget about some of the modest amenities U.S. airlines have restored in economy in recent years. The stroopwafels might have gone away on health grounds (to minimize nonessential interactions between flight attendants and customers), but I don’t think they’ll come back the moment it’s safe. These airlines are back to trying to get through the day, focusing on needs and not wants.

Andrés: I do miss those stroopwafels, United’s great innovation of the past decade.

Christopher: I too remember after 9/11 when all that free food went away. I was working at an airport at the time and used to live on all the extra boxed meals we’d unload at the end of the day. Then, suddenly, they were just gone.

Andrés: To Seth’s earlier point, we take for granted now how safe flying really has been. … We can reasonably assume planes don’t fall out of the air. But occasionally other concerns pop up, such as terrorism post- 9/11, which led to the creation of TSA, the end of being able to meet loved ones at gates, the ritual of taking off shoes and dispensing with liquids at security. Now our safety concerns are shifting and I see TSA relaxing liquids rules and allowing expired driver’s licenses to go through! (Imagine that on 9/12!)

Christopher: I know, all those new 12-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer let through! Really?!?

Seth: Every crisis changes the industry, so it’s reasonable to think the biggest crisis will change the industry in big ways. But typically, there’s an (understandably) big reaction to a crisis, and then things get ratcheted back. Flying became a lot more of a hassle after 9/11, but eventually we got PreCheck and so forth.

Christopher: Or it’s possible that all the empty planes flying overhead right now will be seen as the most ridiculous last grasp at keeping this enterprise called commercial flight alive.

Andrés: So I want to pin you guys down a bit more. It’s 2030 … what is it like to fly? Don’t answer, “It depends on the pandemic.”

Benét: I must resist the temptation to predict we’ll all be in those flying cars we’ve been waiting for since the 1950s …

Seth: I’ll start with an easy one: We are all becoming permanently more germophobic, and we will forever see some number of people, even if just a few, wearing masks on flights—including just domestic flights in the U.S.—even after there’s a vaccine and there’s no specific, immediate threat.

Christopher: I have a hope: that in 2030 commercial flight takes place at a fraction of what 2019’s levels were and people understand that flying is for special, “essential” travel. And airlines have adjusted and contracted to meet this demand. But the more cynical side of me thinks that in 2030 it will look a lot like 2019 but even worse, and yet climate change and other environmental disasters will be making life harder for those living in the poorest nations and hardest parts of the world.

Andrés: You don’t believe it’s beneficial travel has become more accessible and commonplace in recent years?

Christopher: The accessibility of flight was beneficial, to a point—but then it metastasized so quickly.

Andrés: The real explosion in traffic has been overseas, with the rise of the global middle class. Isn’t it hard to tell people elsewhere they can’t enjoy our way of life because they are late to the party?

Christopher: It is a real tension, for sure. But the “party” metaphor is apt: The party can only go on for so long before everyone is throwing up.

Seth: This is why many people feel a true global price on carbon, which includes aviation, is the way forward. The idea is, you let people make their own choices, but pricing in the impact of those choices.

Benét: I see a global contraction, with a governmental organization overseeing  the airline industry as the Civil [Aeronautics] Board once did.

It will regulate fleets and schedules, eliminating competition. Fares will be higher, and not everyone will be able to afford to fly. But it will insulate the industry from future chaos, where Sir Richard Branson is offering Necker Island as collateral to save Virgin Atlantic and the Italian government has swooped in to nationalize Alitalia.

Seth: I hesitate to disagree with the Aviation Queen (being that I’m not even a prince), but I expect more incremental change than what Benét said.

Andrés: Seth, if you have enough frequent flyer points, we can upgrade you to Aviation Czar.

Benét: It’s all good. I was looking way into the future—and who will check me in 2030?

Seth: Absent some big, unimaginable, external force—which we’ve all seen is a dangerous game to play, to try to ignore that!—I think we know a lot of what will happen, because airports and airplanes are designed with such longtime horizons. We know, more or less, what kinds of airplanes airlines will be flying in 2030, and they’re not so different from the ones they’re flying today. They’ll be more carbon-friendly—that’s good—but if their efficiency means less money spent on fuel, the benefits of that could flow more to consumers than to the environment (if flying continues becoming cheaper and thus more people do it). The pace of “densification,” as airlines call it— ramming more seats on planes—will actually slow, even absent any COVID-related sensitivities, because many airlines are up against the regulatory limits of how many seats you can put on an airplane.

Andrés: It’s so interesting … to think about the clamor for de-densification that will be such a staple of life, right? On planes, and elsewhere.

Seth: Definitely.

Andrés: I mean, no offense, but I don’t want to get on an elevator with any of you.

Seth: A full dance floor used to be the sign of a great party! What are weddings going to look like now? And so forth.

Christopher: Yes, we are completely reorienting our senses of space: personal space, social space, and psychic space. And airports and airplanes are places where senses of space are felt (and monetized) intensely. There’s no marketing scheme or loyalty campaign that can really mitigate this reality. And regardless of our personal decisions, when it comes to risk, we are going to see a lot of professions reining in travel—if not directly for safety reasons, for cost-saving reasons. Because they now realize they can. People are used to Zoom and all the other telecommuting technologies.

Andrés: Benét, you may be the “Aviation Queen,” but you have a broad view of the travel ecosystem beyond airlines. Do you see demand for travel going down because of factors other than flying … such as what might happen with hotels and credit cards, and attractions like Disney World?

Benét: I just published a story on the Points Guy about my stay in a hotel last week. Think about all the surfaces and that the coronavirus can last five-plus days on. Housekeepers will have to be retrained. Rooms will take longer to clean. Rates will go up—and that’s even if you can convince guests that you’re cleaning properly. We’re already seeing credit cards—especially travel-branded ones—being forced to offer credits and allowing more points or miles per dollar spent on categories such as dining and groceries.

Andrés: Before we finish here I’d like each of you to tell me: When are you next getting on a plane, and why?

Christopher: I have no plans to fly right now. I hope to travel in the fall or spring to give a university talk that got canceled at the end of March. But that’s my only real idea or tentative plan, at this point. I’m certainly not going to rush it.

Seth: I haven’t been on a flight since January and have no current plans, other than a flight I booked for October because it was practically free (figuring I can take it or not, depending on the situation). I do hope to fly before then—just no specific plans, as I wait to see when it seems safe. The first place my family and I will go will certainly be Florida, to see our families whom we didn’t get to see over Passover (when we last planned to visit them).

Benét: I’m the Aviation Queen—and I drove from Baltimore to San Antonio, so that tells you something. I love to travel, but I don’t see myself getting on a plane before November. I’m a germophobe. (I’ve always traveled with Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer.)

Andrés: Thanks to you all. This has been fun, if sobering. I hope to meet all of you in person sometime soon—just not in a middle seat next to me.

Correction, May 12, 2020: Due to an editing error, this article misspelled the name of Seth Kaplan’s podcast. It is Airlines Confidential. The article was also updated to include Kaplan’s book, Glory Lost and Found: How Delta Climbed From Despair to Dominance in the Post-9/11 Era .

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.