Eerie Deserted Airports Will Start To See Passengers Again Very Soon

Throughout the pandemic, even as most of us stay home, there have still been people flying. There are politicians headed back to DC to vote and lobbyists heading there looking for some quick money for their clients (Congressman Jim Moran famously said after 9/11, “It’s an open grab bag, so let’s grab.”). There are researchers and medical personnel traveling. There are parents who split custody keeping their court-ordered obligations to bring children to an ex-spouse. And people heading to funerals, or to see loved ones during their last moments.

And there are people like this reader Howard who have continued to travel for leisure, taking advantage of cheap travel deals.

I’m on a Delta plane now, it’s 60% full actually. These aren’t all doctors and ‘first responders’ (whatever that phrase means in the context of a viral infection?)

Lots of people sitting next to each other.
Me, I was on a long weekend for fun in the Midwest.

And you know what? I’m flying again on Tuesday for a 6 day road trip.
And after that? I’m flying again a few days later.

Nothing has changed that much about it. No one asks for immunity cards, no one is checking temperatures – and it’s the same herd mentality of get on, sit down, shut up and fly in the air.

See, I’m doing it *every* week.

There’s clearly been a minimum floor for people passing through airports, as TSA screening data reveals. Here is March and April passenger screenings compared to a year prior. Remember of course that this includes employees being screened, it isn’t just passengers.

If we zero in on just April 2020, and set 80,000 as a floor so that we can see smaller changes, it appears that we hit bottom in mid-April and have been recovering to the level of people passing through airport security at the beginning of the month. Those numbers are still around 95% off what they would have been.

Carmen, who had to travel from San Diego to Austin and turn back around the same day, shared her photos from the Austin airport. She points out that only one concession – Salt Lick Barbecue – was open here in my home town.


Austin-Bergstrom Departures Lobby, credit: Carmen


Austin-Bergstrom Shuttered Concessions, credit: Carmen


Austin-Bergstrom Empty Concourse, credit: Carmen

It will be some time before we’re doing very much international travel. One reason is that immunity passports aren’t going to work.

However as some states begin to open their economies we’ll begin to see a little more travel again. Indeed we’re already beginning to, though it’s barely noticeable unless you shrink the time series and condense the passenger numbers on the left axis of the graph.

Hopefully we will not see travel out of places suffering from coronavirus outbreaks, at least to places that aren’t currently experiencing outbreaks or that have their transmission under control. That risk – reintroducing the virus – is one reason the lack of border controls on states within the U.S. presents a challenge.

What we need to bring back travel is scaled up health care system capacity, scaled up testing, and improved treatments. We’re on the way with better treatment, if only because researchers and doctors are beginning to understand the virus better. Remdesivir is expected to get approval as a treatment in Japan next month.

Vaccines are still far off, but we do not need a vaccine to travel domestically, we just need to control the virus, not be overwhelmed by the virus, and be able to improve patient treatments. And some countries that have reached this point will open up their borders to travelers, too, and we’ll be able to travel again when we can be confident we aren’t traveling with the virus or likely falling victim to it somewhere we’d have challenges with treatment (medical evacuation coverage becomes more top of mind than ever).

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Howard sounds fantastic *rolls eyes*

    Talk about ruining it for everyone else who’s suffering inside. Way to go!

  2. I am baffled by the ‘cheap travel deals’ idea. Nothing is open, or if it is its heavily restricted. There is nothing to do when you get there. I just don’t get it.

  3. I see air travel within the U.S. coming back strong starting in late May to June. By September most U.S. carriers will have resumed a near full schedule of routes. International travel is a bit more questionable. But if the EU Schengen ban is lifted May 15 and not extended – and the U.S. lifts its ban/restrictions from the same, then look for bookings to skyrocket for TATL flights. I think demand will be huge, so much so that the big carriers like LH, BA, AF will use their B-747s and A-380s like never before.

    Also, I don’t think governments will impose a distancing/seating restriction on the airlines. It’s just not going to be economical for the airlines. So, with pent up demand, people who need/must get back to North America/Europe the planes will be max full IMHO.

    We already see the U.S. and Europe rush to open up and people are flush with government cash stimulus, stock markets are moving higher, businesses are awash in government grants and zero interest loans in the U.S. and most of Europe. People have not spent a lot on discretionary items the past two to three months, so people are ready to make up for lost time and fun. They are ready to rejoin the great stage of life and all that it has to offer. It will be a rush and boom the likes that have not been seen since the post WWII golden economic era, 1947-1959 or the Reagan era of free markets.

    Even after the world’s worst natural and man made calamities, life went on. It must. It will. Consider after the 2008 global financial crisis, that the world economy overall went on to be greater than the pre-bust period. It’s human nature to do more than just survive.

    Happy days are soon to be here again. Tomorrow is just a day away.

  4. Stop drinking the Trump bleach. It’s dangerous out there and we don’t even have mask requirements. Except JetBlue.

  5. The only time I have seen anything like this was back in 1993 (about then) I took my folks to Lambert – STL for their flight to London on TWA. It was delayed (I know TWA delayed in the 90’s shocking) and I waited with them until mid-night when it boarded and pulled away. I walked the entire length of Concourse C and saw no one, not store open just a huge rat (kid you not, it was cat sized) sitting on a boarding gate check in stand (why I don’t touch those to this day) eating green bar paper (kids ask your Dad or Grandparents what that is). Needless to say, not rats in my latest travel, but the same empty and ominous feeling. Can’t wait to be mad at someone again who can’t manage their luggage!

  6. I would have taken a trip when my kids had “spring break” two weeks ago (we had tickets to Italy) but like another poster said, where would we go? We couldn’t road trip to Canada (the borders closed) we couldn’t hop a cheap flight to FL; the two hotels I like were only accepting reservations from people who could prove they were traveling for essential business. Anywhere we would go things were closed; restaurants, attractions, even places where it’s possible to distance like national parks and beaches. I’m hoping to take a trip Memorial Day weekend at this point

  7. Would be nice to have an actual national plan for testing. “2% of the population!!!” isn’t exactly admirable.

  8. “Testing” has become an excuse to avoid hard decisions. How, and how often, are we suppose to test 340 million people (the approximate U.S. population)? The current positive/negative test is a diagnostic tool. It only identifies an individual who is infected at the specific time of the test. A mobile, traveling society would have to be tested constantly if testing is to become a requirement for “safe” air travel. Such an approach is economically unfeasible and operationally unworkable.

  9. @Daniel @tom – I suspect It’s just a troll being a troll and he’s not really traveling. Or maybe I’m wrong and he’s a traveling troll.

  10. Gary, you need to keep up if you’re going to publish this sort of thing. The Remdesivir trials aren’t having useful results. Japan’s approval of the drug doesn’t make it effective.

  11. @Greg S – we do not know yet whether remdesivir is effective, there was a leaked early result interpreted to suggest it wasn’t which the manufacturer disputes. I have no particular allegiance to this specific drug, but I do think we’re going to see treatments [before a vaccine]

  12. Am I the only one who noticed “Carmen” from San diego?

    Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? She’s back home in San Diego

  13. Story out this morning that points out the Chinese study that revealed disappointing data for Remdesevir is an outlier and that there are reasons to be very optimistic about approval of Remdesevir and its efficacy in reducing the time that it takes patients to get over the effects of Covid-19.

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