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Airlines Try To Return To Normal During Tumultuous Pandemic

_ Jonathan Cutrer/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Up until recently, Texas-based Southwest and American airlines weren't filling flights to allow for social distancing. But American recently ended that policy.

From Texas Standard:

Normally during the summer, millions of Americans travel by air every day. But that's not happening this year because of the pandemic. The number of air travelers has dropped to levels not seen since the 1950s, and that could permanently reshape the air travel business.

Dallas Morning News aviation reporter Kyle Arnold told Texas Standard on Tuesday that airlines, including Texas-based Southwest and American airlines, had underestimated how long the pandemic would disrupt their businesses. Four months in, they're now "sucking it up," he said, and trying to adapt to possible long-term changes in how people travel.

Normally, about 2.2 million people travel by air each day. But an April estimate showed that number had dropped to about 87,000.

"That's pretty staggering for an industry that has 750,000 employees, and that can't easily ramp up and ramp down," Arnold said.

Airlines are trying to ease customers' worries by thoroughly cleaning planes between flights. Air filtration systems are also supposed to filter cabin air every two to four minutes. And Southwest and American had decreased the number of seats sold for each flight to allow for social distancing. American recently ended that practice, and has resumed selling full flights.

"They said, We're going to sell planes to capacity. We have to do this; people demand it. And we can't afford to operate a business where we're only selling a fraction of the seats we have," Arnold said.

So far, he said there's no evidence that planes are hot spots for the spread of COVID-19.

People are starting to travel more as the economy reopens – even amid spikes in coronavirus cases in some states. As a result, airlines are preparing for more capacity.

But still, with fewer travelers overall, flight prices could go up in the fall.

"Airlines both have to make up for all the debt they absorbed, and for the more planes and the employees that they have, and trying to adjust their business," Arnold said.

Web story by Caroline Covington.

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