It’s been really hard to watch travel slow to a crawl. I’ve loved travel, aviation, and loyalty marketing for decades. I was a frequent flyer between the coasts back and forth from one parent to the other before I was five, so flying has been a part of my life for as long as I’ve understood the world around me.
It’s been hard to hear from readers working in the industry who worry about their jobs. It’s been hard to talk to leaders in the industry powerless to move the needle for their businesses, unable to fix things no matter how accomplished they are in their careers.
And it’s hard to watch publications that cover this industry struggle as well, as advertising dollars dry up and people who earn commissions on travel not have any commissions because there is no travel. (I have an award booking service but currently there’s nobody booking awards.)
I work from home anyway. I went remote with my job based in the DC area back in 2014, and I love being home when I can be to spend time with my young daughter. In the near-term I’m fine. Ad dollars may dry up for this blog, but I also have a job which is where I get my health care. I don’t have a payroll to meet in travel, because there are no employees of this blog, just me. So far it’s just been about, do I get my hair cut this week? And why can’t I get any toilet paper at the grocery store?
As thing continue though they’re going to change. They’re already changing for people in industries that serve the public directly, and for people who are working from home for the first time (instead of eliminating home-based reservations agents maybe American should move to strictly home-based?).
I still see people who aren’t taking this seriously. There’s a lot more talk of aysmptomatic transmission than there used to be. It was thought for some time much transmission happened from people with merely mild symptoms rather than prior to developing symptoms. That makes it much harder to slow progression and points towards widespread and repeated testing for everyone. In mild good news a survey of experts finds slightly more than half believe we’ll see 300,000 or fewer deaths in the U.S. in 2020, which is better than 1.2 million or more (compared to generally fewer than 60,000 flu deaths per year).
In the travel world at least that’s largely changed. Just a week ago American Airlines appeared to be giving this pandemic mere lip service. That’s changed quickly. (Delta wasn’t much more on the ball, it was only United publicly sounding an alarm.)
It seems necessary to be walking through some of the reasons that – even if things go well – we may not be seeing ‘normal’ again any time soon, if at all.
Let’s assume that social distancing works, and even that we can get the virus somehow under control in the next 10-14 weeks. Maybe more people are naturally immune than we think, or its spread is affected by temperature and we’re heading into a warmer period. Regardless let’s say the U.S. looks more like South Korea does today with a smaller number of new infections (though over the past several days the rate of change downward seems to have stopped).
Things aren’t going to go back to normal, not right away. This is speculative, and I’m certainly a lay person, but here are some major areas of concern:
- There are reasons to think we won’t be able so maintain sustained social distancing. People have been cooped up for a few days.. What happens after it’s been a couple of weeks? Six weeks? Ten weeks?
- When a large number of people get the virus and recover, those people are likely to want to go out again and go to work again – they’ll figure they’ve already had it, are probably immune (there are still risks of a different strain, how long immunity lasts, how universal it is, but certainly many people will assume immunity). So they start going out, how much harder will it be for everyone that hasn’t had it yet to stay distanced?
- Once we’ve gotten control of the virus we’re going to need to ensure there’s not a re-occurrence. Even if that’s not possible, we’re going to need to try. That means restricting travel in and out of places where it’s under control. And it means strict testing regimes. China is encouraging travel but testing everyone coming into the country which is costly and time-consuming. There will be huge controls on travel.
- Not everywhere in the U.S. will be affected by the virus equally, and not everywhere will recover at the same pace. There will be restrictions inside the U.S. not just restrictions on foreign travel.
- The virus comes back (probably) and to the extent we reduce the number of infections this year it’ll be more widespread and more lethal than it would have been otherwise – because it’s attacking more people whose bodies haven’t had experience fighting it off. We could be doing this all over again. We’re supposedly buying time for a vaccine but best case that’s usually assumed to be 12 months off, and if we benefit from climate we may also see a resurgence again in fall and winter, i.e. before there’s a vaccine.
- Travel is largely shut down. That was a first, most visible consequence of our response to the virus. Restaurants are being closed, laying off people. So are bars, bowling alleys, gyms, and nearly every other public gathering place. We’re going to have high unemployment because the government is – as an explicit strategy – turning off the economy. The government can’t just turn it back on like a light switch. There are coordinating aspects to the economy. Businesses that can still open will decide when the time is right based on an estimate of demand. Some won’t open back up at all (so far about 40% of small and mid-sized businesses in China that closed have not re-opened.) Once they re-open they don’t just send an email to all former employees and tell everyone to show up at a certain time. Employees move on, businesses look for different employees. Job searches and hiring processes take time – months.
- We’ll have been through a lot of social change. Norms changed during the Great Depression and they changed during World War II. They also changed after 9/11, if only in terms of deferring to the growth of the security state. We’re likely to see a lot of changing norms over things like social distancing, a shift to contactless payments, but also getting much more used to things like quarantines, curfews, and temperature checks entering buildings. Do we start to accept having our movements tracked not just by the NSA but by public health agencies as well? (Eugene Volokh isn’t worried.)
My point is, from where we are right now, it appears that things aren’t on the verge of going back to full normal in just a couple of months – and what we think of as full normal might even change.