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Aug. 17, 2020, 2:02 p.m. EDT

Airlines want people to believe that air travel is safe during the pandemic, but travelers are skeptical

In a Consumer Reports survey, people said going to a hospital emergency room was safer

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By Associated Press


Associated Press
A passenger wears personal protective equipment on a Delta Airlines flight.

In a bid to survive, airlines are desperately trying to convince a wary public that measures like mandatory face masks and hospital-grade air filters make sitting in a plane safer than many other indoor settings during the coronavirus pandemic.

It isn’t working.

Surveys indicate that instead of growing comfortable with air travel, more people are becoming skeptical about it. In the United States, airline bookings have stalled in the past month after slowly rising — a reaction to a new surge of reported virus infections.

Globally, air travel is down more than 85% from a year ago, according to industry figures.

The implications for the airline industry are grave. Several leading carriers already have filed for bankruptcy protection, and if the hoped-for recovery is delayed much longer, the list will grow.

The four largest U.S. airlines lost a combined $10 billion from April through June. Their CEOs say they will survive, but they have lowered their expectations for a rebound.

“We were all hoping that by the fall the virus might run its course,” said Southwest Airline /zigman2/quotes/201071949/composite LUV -3.79%  s CEO Gary Kelly. “Obviously, that has proven to be dead wrong.”

When Consumer Reports surveyed more than 1,000 people in June about their comfort with various activities during the pandemic, 70% said flying was very or somewhat unsafe. They rated going to a hospital emergency room or standing in line to vote as safer.

In a survey commissioned by an airline trade group, the biggest concern of travelers was the possibility of sitting next to an infected person.

John Kontak, a schoolteacher from Phoenix, said that was his fear as soon as he stepped onto a crowded American Airlines flight this summer to visit his parents in Ohio.

“I don’t know anything about this person who is sitting a foot away from me,” Kontak said. “They took the bottom line or the dollar over the safety of passengers. Next time, I’d rather drive back to Ohio than fly — it’s safer because I can control it.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says sitting within 6 feet (2 meters) of other passengers, often for hours, may increase the risk of getting COVID-19. But CDC also notes that most viruses and other germs don’t spread easily on flights because of how air circulates on planes.

Standard & Poor’s said this week that the industry’s prospects have gone “from bad to worse,” with global air traffic dropping by up to 70% this year. In May, S&P said a 55% drop was a worst-case scenario.

“It’s going to be a slower and more uneven recovery than one might have expected,” S&P analyst Philip Baggaley said.

An airline trade group, the International Air Transport Association, predicts carriers will lose $84 billion this year, making it the worst year in the industry’s history. The group says traffic won’t fully recover until 2024.

/zigman2/quotes/201071949/composite
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