July 26, 2021
The travel industry was one of the hardest-hit sectors during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, causing ripple effects throughout the economy. With the rollout of vaccines and lifting of restrictions across the United States, however, many Americans are itching to book flights in the not-so-distant future but also curious how they'll be kept safe.
Industry experts shared insights on the science behind the safety of air travel, COVID-19’s economic impact on the travel sector, and what to expect in the months ahead for post-pandemic travel.
Pent-Up Demand for Travel Leads to Significant Boost in Domestic Leisure Flights
As of early summer 2021, TSA checkpoint travel numbers have returned to nearly 80% of pre-pandemic numbers. According to Jillian Tellez Holub, partner at McKinsey & Co., this phenomenon is due to “a lot of pent-up demand that’s being unleashed around the same time.”
“Travel was one of the most missed activities during COVID,” she explained. “Many consumers are looking for a way to treat themselves or to splurge after what has been an extremely difficult year and a half for all of us.”
“We’re seeing a healthy recovery in leisure travel … [but] corporate travel is a different story,” Tellez Holub said, noting that employees in primarily remote industries may not necessarily return to flying as quickly as those who “never left” corporate travel.
“[The United States is] amongst those that are beginning to return to business travel,” she added. “International travel will be much slower to respond, given the reduced airlift and government restrictions.”
How Companies Can Give Customers Confidence in Travel
“There’s two primary things: the traveler needs to feel safe and be safe … and the travel has to be predictable,” Freeman stated. “People have to be able to get to their destination and get home.”
The Boeing Company has taken these two elements to heart. In addition to enhancing disinfecting protocols and ensuring sufficient airflow on their aircraft, the company has also increased communications around their safety and testing protocols. This process has also required increased collaboration both within and adjacent to the travel industry.
“We’ve formed really strong partnerships with universities, with government agencies [and] with industry organizations,” said Freeman. “We’ve also worked with our competitors … It’s been an unprecedented amount of collaboration.”
The Science Behind Air Travel Safety: Why Airplanes Are Low-Risk Settings
Americans returning to air travel post-pandemic may be concerned about the safety of doing so. However, aircraft are actually among the settings with the lowest risk of transmission.
According to Joe Allen, assistant professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the dominant mode of transmission for the coronavirus is through airborne particles.
“We need to be much less focused on surface transmission,” Allen stressed. “We didn’t have a single well-documented case of surface transmission from … the virus that causes COVID-19.”
With respect to airborne particles, the ventilation system within an airplane works quickly to dilute these respiratory aerosols. Any recirculated air goes through HEPA filters, which capture 99.97% of airborne particles.
“[The air] is not crossing from passenger to passenger — it’s swept out of the floor and it goes in through the HEPA filters, removing the virus and bacteria,” explained Rebecca Spicer, SVP of communications at Airlines for America. “The air on an aircraft is as clean as an operating room inside of a hospital.”
Returning to Travel Can Recover 62 Million Lost Jobs
While the travel sector has long been a significant contributor to the world’s GDP and employment, those contributions dropped sharply between 2019 and 2020. Helena Bononi, commercial VP of the World Travel & Tourism Council, reported an industry loss of 49.1% total GDP and 62 million lost jobs amid the pandemic.
“For all of the jobs impacted, there is a disproportionate impact [on] women, youth, and other minorities,” Bononi stressed.
According to Bononi, it is possible for the travel industry to return to near pre-pandemic levels and to recover those 62 million lost jobs by 2022.
“However, this is contingent,” she added, “and only possible if the global vaccine rollout keeps its speed and restrictions continue to relax.”