August 6, 2020
The Golden Age of Travel
Right now is the best time ever to travel internationally…
As long as you aren’t trapped by government restrictions, aren’t medically vulnerable, and are willing to follow the rules, there has never been a better time to go somewhere far away.
You can now practically play Ultimate Frisbee in airports without hitting anyone – rather than the pre-pandemic Mad-Max-meets-pinball experience of getting from one gate to the next…
Airline personnel seem downright eager to help… perhaps because they haven’t had any customers for months and they’re probably happy just to have a job…
You’ll find acres of empty seats and hear-a-pin-drop lounges…
And tickets to almost anywhere are heavily discounted because, well, a major virus is killing hundreds of thousands of folks across the world.
So where should you go? More on that below…
Of course, travel is different today, too.
Essentially everyone is wearing a facemask… and most are doing more than just the minimum level of personal protection. Traveling with a plane half-full of other people wearing face shields made me feel like I was caught up in a welder’s convention. With the whole family decked out in gear, you feel like a latter-day pandemic version of the Coneheads.
To talk to anyone, you have to speak at a volume normally reserved for toddlers wandering into traffic or a winning bingo card.
The flight attendants, who on Qatar Airways are usually ready to walk the runway, are clad in hazmat suits and goggles, looking like a cross between dental assistants and nuclear waste excavators.
One of the on-flight safety videos featured detailed instructions on how to wash your hands, in case you missed that day in kindergarten. And the “Protective Kit” seat-pocket swag bag, containing a facemask, plastic gloves, and hand sanitizer, was a buzzkill.
Still, as long as you ignore any lingering concern that at any point you might be inhaling, touching, walking into, or sitting on a virus that could kill you… the global airline industry would certainly appreciate your support. As The Economist explained this week, it’s in dire straits…
As airlines sell fewer tickets, owing to pandemic travel restrictions or travelers’ fear of infection, the industry that makes flying possible faces a reckoning. Aircraft-makers will make fewer passenger jets and so need fewer parts from their suppliers. Ticket-sellers will see less custom and airport operators, lower footfall. Many firms have cut output and laid off thousands of workers. The question now is how far they will fall, how quickly they can recover, and what will be the long-lasting effects.
According to the International Air Transport Association, international air traffic shrank by 96.8% in June from the prior year. Still, though, about four out of every 10 seats were filled on international flights – compared to a bit more than twice that level in June 2019.
To try to staunch some of the gushing ink pouring from their bottom lines, airlines have reduced capacity by mothballing most of their planes. That’s why there are more than just a handful of people on every flight.
Airlines are the connective tissue of the tourism industry, which accounts for around 10% of global economic output. It extends into lots of other economic sectors – food and beverage, real estate, manufacturing, transportation, luxury goods, and financial services. Without tourism, many other parts of the economy are seriously hobbled.
But I’m talking about a “golden age” for international travel – forecast by the World Tourism Organization to fall as much as 80% this year – rather than for domestic travel.
Flying in the U.S. – thanks to invasive TSA body searches, crumbling infrastructure that makes the Harare, Zimbabwe airport shine by comparison, and unions that won’t allow even the most rude and ossified flight attendants to be fired – makes flying domestic about as fun as a dentist visit.
In addition, many destinations are still off-limits to U.S. visitors. Americans are permitted to enter just 29 countries (compared to 184 countries late last year during normal times). The travel value of an American passport has collapsed to around the level of a (pre-pandemic) Iraqi passport, as I wrote a few week ago.
Even so, there are several countries that Americans can still travel to – particularly those where tourism is the heart, brain, and respiratory system of the entire economy…
Aruba (contribution of travel and tourism to GDP: 98%) allows American visitors. So do Belize (45%), St. Lucia (43%), and the Dominican Republic (17%). French Polynesia, Kosovo, and Tanzania are also all American-lovers… or at any rate, lovers of Americans’ dollars. And to get to any of those places, you’re flying.
Which begs the question, how risky is it – really – to fly?
There has been a small number of individual transmissions that might be linked to flights, but no superspreader-scope events. And according to Bloomberg,
The odds of dying of a case contracted in flight [according to one study] are… between 1 in 400,000 and 1 in 600,000 – depending on your age and other risk factors. To put that in perspective, those odds are comparable to the average risk of getting a fatal case in a typical two hours on the ground.
That suggests that flying is safe, coronavirus-speaking. But as the Financial Times delicately explained, the airline industry is “battling to restore confidence among travelers that flying in an enclosed aircraft with hundreds of people is not as risky as it may seem.”
And COVID-19 is transmitted most effectively when a large group of people share germs in a small, enclosed space – so flying might initially seem about as good an idea as eating at a poorly ventilated restaurant in Guangzhou, China, or singing in a choir rehearsal. Social distancing and keeping germs to yourself aren’t easy in a packed airplane.
The airline industry, of course, wants to avoid the cruise-ship route of having “coronavirus petri dish” becoming a permanent modifier to its name.
Some airlines are turning the fear of germs on its head by using cleanliness standards as a selling point. In May, United Airlines kicked off the “United CleanPlus” plan that partners with Clorox and Cleveland Clinic. And aircraft ventilation systems are equipped with HEPA filters that remove particles – including those that are the typical coronavirus size – rather than just blow them around, like a standard air conditioner does.
Dubai-based Emirates took it a step further, offering to help cover medical expenses and quarantine costs of passengers if they’re diagnosed with COVID-19 during their travel while away from home. And if that doesn’t work, the airline will contribute €1,500 to your funeral.
All in all, however, exercising common sense is the best way to fly safely…
- Fly with as few other people as possible (the lower load factor for international flights is a good thing), who are as separated as possible (to allow for social distancing). If you can, book a flight time, destination, and airline where you’re likely to have fewer fellow passengers.
- Only fly if you’ll have an empty middle seat next to you. One recent preliminary study suggests that the chances of contracting the coronavirus are roughly cut in half in an airplane where the middle seats are open.
- Use the restroom before you board. Small, contained spaces with little ventilation – the very definition of an airplane bathroom – are not where you want to be if you can avoid them.
- Clean your area in the plane – tray table, armrests, window shade, seat surface, air nozzles, and anything else you might touch – with sanitizing wipes. Use hand sanitizer frequently. And bring an extra face mask, just in case.
- And don’t bum-rush the doors when boarding or deplaning with everyone jostling for position… The whole point is to not get close to those germy other people.
After you’ve vacationed – and enjoyed near-empty museums, tourist traps that aren’t trapping anyone, and your pick of hotel rooms – next is the challenge of getting home again.
If you’re returning to the U.S., there’s no problem. But a lot of other countries require you to self-isolate in case you’re bringing home a virus. If I wanted to return to Singapore, for example, I’d need to wear a tracking bracelet and stay at home for two weeks, and I’d be fined or even kicked out of the country if I violated quarantine.
In contrast, Ireland is more relaxed. When I arrived in Dublin last week with my family – we’re moving here and are serving a two-week self-quarantine in an Airbnb – I was anticipating some questions.
Ireland is one of the few countries in the EU that still lets Americans in, but there’s been some backlash against American visitors who don’t adhere to the two-week quarantine rule. In our favor, we weren’t coming from the U.S. (and two members of the family hold EU passports). After only the briefest of chats about our intentions in Ireland, the passport-control guy waved us through. Since then, no one has called or checked in on us to be sure that we’re sticking to the quarantine rules.
Meanwhile, there’s a revolution brewing here in Ireland. Out of fear of igniting a surge in cases of COVID-19, this week the government delayed – for a second time – the next phase of relaxing restrictions that would allow pubs to open.
Pubs are important to the Irish, to put it mildly. They’re the very fiber of the culture and of their beings. And pub owners – they’re called “publicans” – are upset. “Pubs speak of ‘full-blown crisis’ as reopening delayed,” blared a local news headline.
Why aren’t pubs opening? Blame those pesky kids who want to go back to school… as the Irish Times explained,
Opening both pubs and schools in the space of a few weeks has been adjudged too risky, particularly in light of the recent uptick in cases. A tough call had to be made. And it seems pubs have been sacrificed to facilitate the reopening of schools.
Maybe Irish folks can’t have a pint of Guinness at their local pub… But at least, unlike Americans, they can go almost anywhere else in the world they want right now. As long as they wash their hands and do their best welder impression.
Now here are some of the stories we’re reading…
Travel experts offer perspectives on international travel amid pandemic
Mexico is one of the few countries currently allowing Americans in without restrictions. “I felt safer there than I feel here,” [a travel advisor] said. “I think it was a much more consistent enforcement. My feeling is this isn’t going away anytime soon and we need to find a way to live with it.”
De Blasio Orders Creation of Coronavirus Checkpoints To Interrogate Visitors to New York City
The city’s contract-tracing efforts don’t appear to be going well, so prepare for more top-down mandates with confusing justifications.
As Apple Nears $2 Trillion, Its Share of S&P 500 Hits Milestone
Apple’s stock market heft has entered uncharted waters. Thanks to more than doubling since last August, its weighting in the S&P 500 just leapfrogged IBM’s in 1985 to become the biggest in 40 years.
ETF joins world’s biggest gold owners as investors flock in
An exchange-traded fund has become one of the world’s biggest owners of gold, surpassing even the central banks of Japan and India, as investors have scrambled to buy the precious metal and pushed it to record highs.
And let us know what you’re reading at [email protected].
Chaos Chronicles Editor, American Consequences
With P.J. O’Rourke and the Editorial Staff
August 7, 2020