Flying During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Flying right now is a double-edged sword. On one hand, no one wants to get sick—that is, other than those Florida spring breakers who inconceivably couldn’t have cared less. The coronavirus presents serious health risks, and many don’t find the reward of traveling worth the risk of getting themselves or others infected. On the other hand, that lack of demand for flying has pushed fares to record-low prices—not to mention that fewer travelers means you’re less likely to go nuts over lollygaggers standing in front of the boarding line, smelly bare feet in the seat next to you, or bozos trying to disembark first from the back. Don’t get me started.

As part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed in late March, U.S. airlines received $25 billion in federal government support. This aid is set to expire on September 30th, but several GOP senators have backed additional assistance for the airline industry in the next stimulus package. Whether that additional aid is included could have a large impact on flight operations and your travel plans moving forward.

So how can you take advantage of this? And what should you remember if you plan to fly?

Unprecedented Booking Flexibility

To entice travelers to book flights, airlines are offering unprecedented booking flexibility. Most airlines have some sort of offer for travelers who want to cancel or postpone their trip. As of this writing, here are the policies for the four largest airlines in the U.S.:

  • American Airlines: All flights booked before September 8, 2020 (for any date) can be rebooked fee-free. For award tickets, you will need to pay any difference in money or miles for your new trip. Cancelled flights are eligible for a refund (you might receive a bonus offer if you choose an airline credit instead of cash).

  • Delta Air Lines: Flights for travel between March 1 and September 30, 2020 can be rebooked until September 30, 2022, with no change fees. Cancelled flights are eligible for a refund.

  • Southwest Airlines: In line with its previous policy, you can rebook your flight or get a travel credit without penalty as long as you change your booking ten minutes before departure (note you will pay any fare difference that applies). Customer credits that expire before September 7, 2020 will now expire September 7, 2022.

  • United Airlines: There’s a 24-hour flexible booking policy, and flights booked by August 31, 2020 can be rebooked with no change fees over the next 12 months. Electronic certificates are now valid for 24 months from the date they were issued.

If you’re ready to book a flight, book once the price is in your preferred range rather than trying to time the low in the market. Consider setting alerts on Google Flights, Hopper or Kayak so that you’re aware when fares drop.

Should You Book Now?

With these low fares and high flexibility, you should book your holiday and 2021 summer vacation flights now, right? Not so fast. While you can lock in low fares now, there’s no guarantee that (1) a vaccine or treatment will be available by then or (2) the flight will still exist if airlines begin to downsize. Keep an eye out for any supplemental assistance for the airlines industry: depending on whether support ends, as well as consumer behavior, airlines could increase their routes or scale them back even further. Also be aware that many states are currently requiring a 14-day quarantine period if you’re traveling from an area with high infection rates, meaning your travel may no longer be worth it. And before you hit that “Submit Booking” button, make sure your trip offers a cancellation policy.

While you won’t pay cancellation fees when  you cancel a flight, you’ll likely get a credit or voucher for future travel instead of a cash refund. Want a cash refund instead? That’s no so simple. Typically, you can only get a cash refund if the airline cancels your flight (required by the Department of Transportation for any flight taking off or landing in the U.S.) or the airline makes a “significant schedule change” (generally if your flight itinerary changes by two or more hours or the airline adds a connection). 

If you plan to cancel your flight and want a cash refund instead of a voucher, consider holding on to your ticket until closer to the departure date. Waiting until a day or two before departure to cancel your flight will significantly increase the likelihood that your airline significantly changes or cancels your flight entirely, making you then eligible for a cash refund. If you take this approach, be sure to set reminders to cancel so that you don’t eat the cost for a missed flight.

How to Stay Safe

If you choose to fly, remember these precautions to protect yourself and others:

1. Bring and wear your own mask
Most airlines now require passengers to wear masks, so bring your own if it provides more filtration than standard masks provided by the airline. Be sure to wear your mask at all times in the airport and on the plane.

2. Take advantage of airline policies to switch flights if too crowded
Make sure you understand your airline’s policy on crowded planes. While some airlines continue to block middle seats, others (such as American Airlines) will notify you if your flight is crowded and give you the opportunity to switch flights.

3. Avoid using bins at security checkpoints (put items in carry-on luggage instead)
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recommends that you avoid using the bins at security checkpoints, instead putting your loose items into your carry-on baggage to avoid touching items that could further expose you to the virus.

5. Scan own boarding pass to minimize touching
In today’s day and age, it’s smart to minimize touching surfaces to the extent possible. At the airport, scan your own boarding pass rather than passing back and forth a germ-infested paper boarding pass with security and airline attendants. 

6. Frequently wash hands and use hand sanitizer (TSA allows 12 oz)
Despite its three-fluid-ounce limit on liquids, the TSA is allowing you to bring up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer on flights until further notice. When washing your hands is not an option, use hand sanitizer often and liberally. Otherwise, wash your hands frequently, especially once you get through security and off the plane.

7. Wipe down hard surfaces with disinfectant wipes (do not wipe down leather or porous surfaces as this can spread germs)
As soon as you get to your seat on the plane, clean nearby hard surfaces with a disinfectant wipe. This includes the screen, seat belt buckle, arm rests, seat tray, etc. However, do not wipe down your seat or any other items made of a porous surface, as doing so can spread germs rather than kill them. Rather, get that hand sanitizer out and use it whenever you touch any of these frequently-used surfaces. 

8. Maintain social distancing
The definition of 2020. Not much explanation needed here.

Be safe out there, and please comment with any other recommendations on flying during these strange times.