I cover US airlines for the Financial Times but I will be driving home for Christmas, thank you very much.
In a normal year, home is five-and-a-half hours away — including the bus and train to reach Chicago’s O’Hare airport, winding through security, the flight to Philadelphia and the 30-minute drive with my dad to the house where I grew up in the suburbs of Wilmington, Delaware.
This year it will take me 13 hours to reach the crackling fire of the familial hearth, a highway odyssey from Illinois crossing Indiana, Ohio and, at last, the 300-mile homestretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. For the journey, I plan to visit my local library to select a number of books to listen to on compact disc — yes, you read that correctly — because I drive a 2004 Honda Civic with pride and have never upgraded the stereo system.
Demand for air travel, including mine, has plummeted this year. Even as Thanksgiving weekend, which marks the start of the holiday season in the US, saw some of the highest passenger numbers since the pandemic hit, according to the US Transportation Security Administration, they were still at about 40 per cent of last year’s levels.
The four major US carriers are striving to get butts in seats. Since the onset of the pandemic in the US and Europe, my inbox has overflowed with health and sanitation updates from Delta, American, United and Southwest Airlines. United partnered with Clorox and the Cleveland Clinic to disinfect aircraft and consult on cleaning protocols. Delta brought in experts from the Mayo Clinic to advise.
All of them produced videos on the workings of “high-efficiency particulate air” filters that recirculate aircraft cabin air every two to three minutes. The refresh is “more frequent than . . . restaurants, grocery stores and even some hospitals,” the United video coos.
The air on the planes is safe, the carriers all but howl. Certainly, a US Defense Department study found that more than 99 per cent of particles were filtered out of the cabin within six minutes, even if airline industry promotion and media coverage forced the authors to append a note warning against mischaracterising their findings. Yet the airlines ignore the elephant at the gate. When we travel, the air on the planes is not the only air we breathe.
Passengers do not board and disembark from the tarmac. Before you take a commercial flight in the US, you will be frequenting an airport for at least two hours — an indoor space, full of strangers who may or may not adhere to rules on masks and social distancing.
A doctor in Arizona tweeted a video of a packed scene at Phoenix airport the weekend before Thanksgiving that gave me chills. The Chicago Tribune reported that O’Hare waxed and waned between ghost town and crowds. That is not encouraging: if I’m trying to catch a flight, I’m going to be there with the crowds, aren’t I? People will bunch at the gate and at security. Or maybe they won’t, but it is impossible to know for sure and that makes me want to stay away entirely.
Quantifying the risk of contracting Covid-19 is difficult, which makes it hard to compare one environment to another, said Byron Jones, a professor at Kansas State University who has studied aircraft air quality. So there is no way to say if a cabin is safer than an airport, particularly when airports are likely to have different policies and traffic levels.
“You really can’t speculate,” he said. “There is an abundance of so-called expert opinion, and a horrible lack of data.” He added, however, that I was less likely to contract the virus while travelling than to die in a car crash.
Still, my worry is more for my parents than myself, and driving makes it possible to quarantine beforehand. As journalist Tatiana Walk-Morris noted this summer, the companies trying to entice back consumers are not public health experts. They are businesses with something to sell, and “they’re not going to be at your funeral”.
Difficult as it may be to judge the perils of one scenario against another, I decline to outsource my risk analysis to people with money on the line. So when I swing by the library next week, I’m going to make sure I get a copy of Bing Crosby singing, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” on CD.