COVID-19 rates are surging around the country. Washington has been racking up thousands of new cases every day. During the crest of the pandemic’s first wave in late March, King County was averaging 197 new cases per day. On Nov. 15, that average was 529.
The curve is turning into a cliff.
But for one reason or another — whether it’s recklessly frivolous or deadly serious — some of you are still going to fly for Thanksgiving.
Based on estimates provided by the federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is expecting between 26,000 and 29,500 passengers a day to pass through its security checkpoints during Thanksgiving week. That’s less than half of last year’s holiday peak (more than 65,000 departing passengers per day), but considerably higher than the March nadir of 2,500.
On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance urging Americans to skip holiday travel this year. And earlier this month, to try to curb a horrible, holiday-induced spread of COVID-19, the governors of Washington, Oregon and California issued a joint statement urging people to not travel during Thanksgiving — or, if they do, to quarantine for 14 days after crossing state lines.
So far, it’s unclear whether they’ve inspired anyone to stay put.
Delta, Alaska and other airlines have waived exchange fees during the pandemic — making it easier to tweak travel plans — but have declined to say whether they’ve seen a flurry of passengers making last-minute cancellations or changes after the governors’ admonitions. (In one representative response, an Alaska Airlines spokesperson said that information would not be shared with the public.)
Instead, airlines and airports like Sea-Tac have been eager to advertise their voluntary safety protocols: seas of hand sanitizer; fresh air piped in from outside the airport or airplane (an Oct. 27 Harvard study says on-flight air is refreshed every two to three minutes); enforced social distancing; anti-viral air filters (Sea-Tac director Lance Lyttle says those were originally installed after the 2001 anthrax scares); and mandatory masks for everyone at all times, despite the lack of federal insistence.
“We asked the federal government if they would put in a mandate to wear masks, but they chose not to,” said Kevin Burke, president and CEO of Airports Council International-North America, a trade group of U.S. and Canadian airport authorities. “We’re usually in the business of trying to get rid of regulations, or regulations that are stupid. But this is not a stupid regulation. This is important.”
But, as travel and family physician Dr. Christopher Sanford of UW Medicine points out, the only foolproof way to avoid getting or spreading a deadly virus while traveling is simple: don’t travel.
“You can’t give an absolute ban, but my basic thought is that it’s a bad time to travel,” he said. “As paradoxical as it seems, you can be heroic right now by just staying home. I wince as I recommend this, because I know it’s tough — everybody’s got cabin fever. But this is not forever. It’s just for right now.”
Sanford also understands some will decide it’s necessary to fly — after conferring with his brothers, he recently decided to visit their mother, who is 87 and has been living alone in East Texas since her husband passed away last winter.
“There is risk with any contact with other people — but as we all know, social interaction is an essential human need,” he said. “So the difficult part of all of this is to determine the ideal middle ground.”
Ultimately, education and harm reduction are important. You can lecture people about abstinence until you wheeze, but sometimes you just have to hand a person some prophylactics.
For those who decide it’s necessary to fly, Sanford suggests considering a coronavirus test a couple of days before departure to minimize the chance you’re spreading the virus as you go (he got one before visiting his mother), and gives the usual recommendations: Wash your hands frequently, stay 6 feet apart from people, wear a mask.
“And consider eating before you go to the airport,” he said. “You want to minimize your need to drop your mask to eat and drink while you’re in an airport or jet.”
Airlines have made some noise about middle seats (Alaska is blocking them out, American is not), but Sanford says he has yet to see any hard data on the subject.
“Transmission on jets appears to be low — it can happen, but it appears to be rare,” he said. “Having said that, distance is a good thing. Personally, I’m reassured about an empty middle seat.”
Scott Keyes, an airline industry observer and founder of the budget travel agency Scott’s Cheap Flights, said carriers have become intensely focused on coach-class safety and convenience during the pandemic — largely because business travel, formerly a big moneymaker, has collapsed.
That, he said, partly explains why airlines have waived formerly steep change fees for everyday travelers.
“Airlines are doing everything they can to entice people to travel,” he said. “Another noticeable change is in airfares around the winter holidays and the middle of the summer. Normally, those are the most expensive times to fly — but we’re seeing a ton of cheap flights around the winter holidays and already seeing them for summer 2021.”
During this new era of flexibility, Keyes said, customers aren’t the only ones more likely to change or cancel flights at the last minute — airlines are doing that, too.
If that happens, he recommends a few things while joining that long line of irritated passengers: Research your preferred alternative flights while waiting, which can expedite the process for overwhelmed agents. Also consider calling customer service while in line — an office outside the U.S., if your cellphone plan doesn’t make that stupidly expensive. While a Midwest snowstorm can snarl Delta’s domestic phone lines, Delta offices in Canada or Mexico or even England can often change your tickets just as easily, with minimal hold times.
Despite the risks and pleas to stay home, some people will travel. The TSA reports that on Nov. 15, 978,297 people passed through airport security checkpoints in the U.S. That’s down from the 2,396,681 on the same day last year, but more than 1,118% above the trough of 87,534 travelers TSA counted April 14.
Still, Sanford said, if you can stay home, please do.
“I worry that people are getting fatalistic about the virus, but I hope it doesn’t take the death of a family member or friend for them to realize their actions have consequences,” he said. “Everybody’s sick of this, everybody’s going nuts with isolation — but if folks can hold it together for a few more months, we all stand a much better chance.”