The Week Flying
Died in America
THURSDAY, APRIL 15, 2021 -- With a year of pandemic perspective, we can see the week that flying died in America. And it was, in fact, this week last year.

After a booming January and February, oblivious to the growing Coronavirus plague first in China and then in Europe, the United States began to get slapped senseless in March of 2020. By mid-month, the Trump Administration launched "15 Days to Slow the Spread" and ineffectively "banned" some flights, first from China and then from Europe.

Airline traffic plunged. On March 1, 2020, more than 2.2 million Americans climbed on a commercial flight. By mid-March, that had fallen to 1.2 million. By March 31, fewer than 150,000 Americans were in the air.


2020 Traffic

2019 Volume*

Saturday, April 18



Friday, April 17



Thursday, April 16



Wednesday, April 15



Tuesday, April 14



Monday, April 13



Sunday, April 12



Weekly total



Key: Source: Daily TSA "throughput" at airport security checkpoints. * TSA compares similar days in 2019, not exact dates.

It all came apart this time last year. From Sunday, April 12, which happened to be Easter, through Saturday, April 18, a total of only 669,718 people took a commercial flight. That was just a few basis points above 4% of 2019's comparative volume of 16.5 million. The absolute nadir? Tuesday, April 14, 2020. Only 87,534 brave (or foolish or desperate) people boarded an aircraft.

Have we learned anything at all in the intervening year? With flying, almost all of it leisure travel, back to about 50% of 2019 levels, surely we've learned something about life on the road.

Maybe. Maybe not. After a year of writing what is essentially "fan fiction" about travel, I find it's hard to see the metaphoric forest for the Coronavirus trees. But let's give it a whirl.

Whether you think we're 70% back to flying normal (that was April 3) or closer to 50% (it was slightly below that Tuesday and Wednesday), the missing element in the skies is business travel. And business travel won't be normal for a long, long time. Without meetings and convention business, a huge chunk of business travel will remain grounded. The efficacy of Zoom will cut into one-on-one business travel, perhaps permanently. Worst of all, business travel--especially the meeting/convention part--is not a snapback kind of thing. It takes planning and time. You can't just announce a trade show for next month and expect exhibitors and attendees to show up. It's not for nothing that Delta Air Lines said today that business travel is just 20% of normal.

Johns Hopkins says that more than 75,000 new Coronavirus cases were reported yesterday. I know it is hard to remember, but that number would have been--and was--a crisis as recently as six months ago. In other words, this is not over, folks. Only about a quarter of Americans have been vaccinated. Worse, we really don't know how long the vaccines last. Maybe we will need a booster in six months. Maybe we'll need one every year to battle Covid-19 variants. So don't laminate that CDC vaccine card just yet. Let's see how we progress in the weeks ahead.

Much has been made of this week's new CDC report on the value of keeping middle seats empty on aircraft. The bottom line is that blocking middle seats can reduce exposure to the virus by 23% to 57%. The study is a typical scientific product, however, complete with caveats and confounding, confusing conclusions. But this much should be obvious: If we're urged to maintain six feet of social distancing on the ground, filling the middle seat so you're shoulder-to-shoulder with a stranger who could be infected is not a good idea. On the other hand, the airlines were never serious about seat-blocking. It was all PR with inventory they couldn't sell. Now that they think they can sell the middle seats again, they couldn't give a rat's patootie about your safety. But safety is your responsibility here: If you're concerned about seat density, fly upfront or buy an empty middle seat. (See how to do it here.) And, of course, you have the option not to fly.

If we learn nothing else, perhaps it should be that there is no given on the road. For years, for decades really, New York-Los Angeles was the busiest (and usually most profitable) route in the nation. And it makes sense, since it links America's free-spending entertainment industry to the capital of American capital. But with both New York State and California being disproportionately walloped by the virus, the route has slipped to Number 10. According to statistics compiled by OAG, the airline industry's schedule keeper, the route with the most available seats in April is Atlanta-Orlando. In fact, of the ten domestic routes with the most seats available this month, four touch Atlanta, five touch Florida airports and two involve Phoenix.

I gave up my American Express Platinum Card a year ago when Amex refused to cut a thin dime off the annual fee even though it had closed all its Centurion Lounges and no one needed Priority Pass access. And since those were the perks I valued most, I saw no need to give Amex $550 for clubs I couldn't use. I'm $550 to the good so far--and with the rumor mill predicting that Amex will raise its annual fee again and limit some club perks, I doubt I'll go back to Platinum. Besides, with Plaza Premium about to pull its lounges from Priority Pass, it's time to reassess club-access costs and credit card options. But more on that in the weeks ahead.