The New York Times runs an opinion piece from one of its editorial board contributors arguing for more federal oversight of airlines to keep the SARS-CoV-2 virus off of planes. This is the same federal government that failed to keep the virus out of the country, or from spreading rapidly.
What the piece calls for is health security theater that mirrors post-9/11 security theater, people put up with “minor humiliations like partly disrobing to get through security” and should be open to “a new set of rules, behaviors — and annoyances — to deal with” like giving up health privacy at the airport via mobile tracking app, and more broadly having “the Departments of Transportation and Homeland Security to come up with new protocols for security, boarding and other routines to minimize risk.”
And we should have new health apps that give us permission to fly,
One start-up, Authoriti, is promoting a technology that adapts the tech used to validate financial transactions to allow airports or the T.S.A. to confirm — from a passenger’s mobile phone app and without collecting personal data — that they have had a recent coronavirus test or haven’t recently been in a hot zone. Mammoth Biosciences and the pharmaceutical company GSK are working on a coronavirus test that yields results in 20 minutes. Maybe a quick, convenient test becomes part of boarding.
There’s much to disagree with in this piece, including its understanding of the current realities of air transportation today. The author believes planes are “sanitized after every flight with clouds of disinfectant” which is true on Delta Air Lines, American does this only over night not between flights.
Something of a non-sequitur in the piece, the author argues that “[t]he [CARES Act] money is keeping America’s air network operational and, most important, paying airline workers.” Most important? Airlines are going to be smaller for a long time, they are going to need fewer workers. Airlines are required to keep everyone on payroll through September 30 and then lay them off (this has been pretty explicit, United will send termination noticed mid-July) because airlines won’t need a good portion of their workforce. So this simply delays the transition to other employment.
“There are two broad choices: Pack the planes or jack up the fares.” Pricing is still determined by supply and demand. If there are government restrictions on supply (no booking middle seats) then airlines will operate fewer flights, only those that can be flown profitably (higher average fare) with fewer passengers. However if there aren’t enough passengers to fill planes that are flying, regardless of the number of seats offered, we’ll continue to see low fares because the marginal cost of carrying an additional passenger is very low once the flight is scheduled.
The piece suggests that the FAA has been recalcitrant in mandating masks, that may be because it lacks the legal authority to do so…
It seems irresponsible for the Times author not to note that there haven’t been outbreaks traced to air travel. There’s a study of SARS from 2003 where there was transmission on one flight. There are plenty of instances where sick people have flown on planes, but not where spread has been established to have occurred on planes (generally in the few cases where it’s been suspected it’s turned out to be people that were already ill, the clusters have been families including where they weren’t all seated near each other and others outside of those families haven’t gotten sick).
Planes can be crowded indoor spaces. However, there’s not much talking. People are all (nearly) facing forwards. There’s a seat back separating passengers. And aircraft larger than 50 seat regional jets have hospital-grade HEPA air filtration.
The point that is true is that people are afraid to fly, and crowded planes make them more so. Blocked middle seats don’t provide social distancing, it means passengers are 1.5 feet from others to the side (passengers in front and behind in economy are generally 2.5 feet away). But it’s about comfort.
Mask requirements are – for now – largely about making people feel safer, at some point that’ll flip and serve as a reminder about being unsafe.
Ultimately “ask[ing] the Departments of Transportation and Homeland Security to come up with new protocols for security, boarding and other routines to minimize risk” will be health security theater, more designed to make people feel like the government is doing something to protect them than actually doing something to protect them, an airline marketing expense as it were.