The Truth About Vaccines, Airport Testing--and Masks
THURSDAY, JULY 2, 2020 -- Remember Fourth of July before Coronavirus? Fireworks, barbecues, mountain and beach getaways, big gatherings of families and friends. And my (mostly) annual column about what business travelers should tell bemused partygoers about our lifestyle.

So we won't be doing a lot of that this year, will we? But we do have the extra added grief of worrying whether we'll blow everything up by mixing fireworks and hand sanitizer.

Nevertheless, I do feel it's appropriate for me to crank up the truth-bomb machine even if we won't be dropping these bits of wisdoms on curious stay-at-home types. (Well, we're all stay-at-home types now, but you know what I mean.)

I wore my mask this week for several consecutive hours in an attempt to simulate a flight while masked. And all I could think about is how much flying while masked is gonna suck on an 11-hour run to Hawaii, an eight-hour flight to Europe or even a two-hour flight to Chicago. And you know what? That's the way the in-flight chocolate chip cookie crumbles. Masks are polite. I can't get tested, so I have no idea if I'm asymptomatic. It would be rude of me to risk infecting you--at a market, in a shop or just passing you at an airport check-in counter. And I sure wouldn't want to infect you during a flight. I hope you feel the same way about not wanting to infect me. (By the way, the Transportation Department late today released a typically useless bit of "guidance" that stops well short of mandating masks at airports and on flights.)

In the early days of the pandemic--Can you even remember March?--airport testing was going to be all the rage. I've lost track of the number of airports that claimed they were partnering with some medical (or pseudo-medical) operation to create an on-the-ground, fast-result testing program. Yeah, so much for that. Even as more and more destinations are telling us that we must quarantine for 14 days--or we can't come at all--if we don't have a test, few airports have actually executed a testing operation.

I cannot vouch for the completeness of my search, but so far I've only found on-premises, on-demand testing at Frankfurt, Munich and Vienna. You can get pre-departure testing assistance from Iceland and Alaska airports. And Dubai, of course, generated lots of publicity for its supposed testing regimen. But that's about it. Even New York/JFK, which banged the PR drum loudly about a partnership with Xpress Spa, only rolled out a facility this week--and only for airline and airport employees.

The only thing more despicable than Donald Trump's repeated claims that the Coronavirus was going to "fade away" and "disappear"--He first farted that out of his face in February and, 128,000 deaths later, repeated it again yesterday--is his insistence that we'll have a vaccine very soon. That's pure, Grade A Trump bullshit, of course. For all the encouraging signs, a vaccine isn't likely this year. Or, possibly, ever. (It's almost 40 years later and we still don't have one for HIV, for example.) And even if we get one soon-ish, we don't know how effective it may be. The annual flu shot we're urged to get is usually only 40-60 percent effective. Expecting a vaccine that will be completely effective against COVID-19 is naive and unrealistic. So if you're waiting for a vaccine before you fly again, you may never fly again. Adjust your plans accordingly.

You've already heard that the European Union yesterday opened its borders to select countries. It was a happy Canada Day since Canadian travelers are welcome. Flyers from the USA? Not so much. Certainly politics played a part in some of the choices. The Belgians legislated for Rwanda, the Spanish were hot for Morocco and we're told Portugal unsuccessfully fought for Brazil even though Brazil's Coronavirus outbreak is horrendous. But no one particularly wanted us or fought for visitors from the United States. Despite the literal billions on the line from high-spending Americans, Europeans are appalled by our response to the virus. So we're grouped with the Russians and the Turks and told to keep moving.

There are some things to understand here. The EC guidance is just that. Guidance. It does not have the rule of law and every nation is free to welcome or bar whomever they please. But at least at the moment, there's more barring than welcoming. Italy, for example, rejected the list outright and no one outside the EC currently is permitted entry. Denmark is keeping the Aussies out. Germany may not permit all 15 nations on the list. Also, the EC promises to review the list every two weeks. But given how badly we're handling the pandemic, don't expect them to fling open the doors for us any time soon.

Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC, told Congress this week that American Airlines deciding to sell middle seats was not "the right message." Redfield--he's the stocky fellow with the white beard and soul patch--said he thought "it's really important that individuals in ... a plane are social distancing to the degree that's feasible." United Airlines, which has also abandoned the practice of empty middle seats, essentially told Redfield to buzz off. "Blocking middle seats is a PR strategy, not a safety strategy," said the world's least PR-conscious airline.

I say, quite bluntly, fuck United, American and Air Canada, which has also decided to sell seats and force you to sit cheek-by-jowl. It is true that empty middle seats--and other blocked seats in both coach and premium cabins--won't give you true six-foot social distancing. But I'd rather sit 24 inches or so apart from someone on a plane than share an armrest. Besides, what's wrong with a good "PR strategy" in the middle of a global pandemic?

If you are smart, you will tell United, American and Air Canada to take their middle seats and sell them where the sun doesn't shine. Other airlines--Delta, Alaska, JetBlue, Southwest and Hawaiian--have taken measures to increase our in-flight space. They deserve our business when we fly again.

Based on TSA daily "throughput" numbers of people passing through airport checkpoints, the chart compares traffic for the last four months. As you can see, traffic collapsed in March compared to March, 2019. It cratered in April. Only about 3 million passed through checkpoints and traffic was down more than 95 percent compared to April, 2019. We flew more in May and June. On a monthly basis, however, we're still below 20 percent of 2019's volume. After the weekend holiday rush--when traffic may reach 30 percent of 2019 volume--experts expect another slowdown. That's due to a Coronavirus resurgence in states such as Florida, California, Texas and Arizona.