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5 Charts That Show COVID-19's Impact on Air Travel

How much of a hit has air travel taken during the COVID-19 pandemic? The short answer: Like nothing anyone has seen before. Even airline experts with long memories can’t remember a comparable impact of some critical event. Yes, 9/11 stopped air travel cold, but the immediate effect lasted weeks, not months. And the nation had a visible system in place—TSA screening—squarely aimed at preventing similar events in the future.

And while statistics vary depending on source and assumptions, public data makes clear that U.S. airline passengers are down about 90 percent for this time of year. International passengers are down at least as much, and domestic air travel in many parts of the world is also down, or shut off completely. Rewards site Upgraded Points recently put those staggering numbers into visuals, which offer a holistic view of the situation thus far.

Here’s what stands out in terms of the about-face COVID-19 has forced upon travel, and data visuals by Upgraded Points that illustrate them.

While very few people are flying (which we’ll refer to as foot traffic), air traffic is higher. As of late-April, about half of all U.S. domestic flights are regularly being canceled despite a 90 percent drop in foot traffic.

The discrepancy between foot traffic and flights is explained by one simple fact: The recent U.S. stimulus bill that offered rescue funds for airports and airlines requires that U.S. airlines continue serving the points they usually serve—which they are doing, by flying virtually empty planes.

Similar effects are seen in Asia and Europe, where foot traffic is down at least 75 percent and many airlines are not required to continue service.

For example, Porter Airlines has suspended all flights, as has RyanAir and Royal Air Maroc. More carriers have suspended all international service, including South African Airways, Turkish, Avianca, and Qantas. The number of daily commercial flights flown globally has decreased by 76.5 percent.

Airlines are having a tough time finding places to park their idle aircraft. As an odd consequence, Southwest is, for now, the world’s largest airline in terms of seats flown per day.

Airports are taking a similar hit, and with a drastic reduction in passengers comes a drastic reduction in workers. Several big multi-terminal fields have concentrated flights into one or two terminals and closed the others. 

All this means big-time economic losses: 4.6 million job losses are projected in the U.S alone in 2020. Sources estimate a loss of 4.6 million jobs in the U.S. travel industry—and counting. It’s no surprise that most airline stocks are tanking. According to International Air Transportation Association (IATA), only Asia looks to lose more passenger revenue this year than North America.

Currently, airlines are offering some very attractive fares, both for the near and long term. Transcon economy round-trips, for example, starting at less than $300 for travel in May; you can (but probably shouldn’t) fly to London for less than $400. But premium-cabin fares are still high.

At present, most airline schedules show minimum service operations through September 30, which is about when U.S. stimulus money is expected to run out. At this time, nobody knows whether conditions will allow airlines to start rebuilding schedules by that time or face widespread closures. For now, most states remain closed or in some state of closures.

The ancient curse “may you live in interesting times” certainly applies to today’s airlines and travelers alike.

More from SmarterTravel:

Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

By Ed Perkins

A nationally recognized reporter, writer, and consumer advocate, Ed Perkins focuses on how travelers can find the best deals and avoid scams.

He is the author of "Online Travel" (2000) and "Business Travel: When It's Your Money" (2004), the first step-by-step guide specifically written for small business and self-employed professional travelers. He was also the co-author of the annual "Best Travel Deals" series from Consumers Union.

Perkins' advice for business travelers is featured on MyBusinessTravel.com, a website devoted to helping small business and self-employed professional travelers find the best value for their travel dollars.

Perkins was founding editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, one of the country's most influential travel publications, from which he retired in 1998. He has also written for Business Traveller magazine (London).

Perkins' travel expertise has led to frequent television appearances, including ABC's "Good Morning America" and "This Week with David Brinkley," "The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather," CNN, and numerous local TV and radio stations.

Before editing Consumer Reports Travel Letter, Perkins spent 25 years in travel research and consulting with assignments ranging from national tourism development strategies to the design of computer-based tourism models.

Born in Evanston, Illinois, Perkins lives in Ashland, Oregon with his wife.

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