In addition to health and safety requirements, there are some further practical problems when flying during COVID-19.
Mechanical, Equipment Swap, Delays
Flying Allegiant was always a problem in the past for three reasons. Its safety record was abhorrent as exposed in a 60 Minutes episode, though fatal safety issues on an airplane are incredibly rare. I didn’t fly Allegiant (nor book anyone on the carrier) because they flew to airports with few options in the event of a mechanical issue and because they had a lot of them. Canceled flights on the carrier would strand travelers for hours, even overnight. It’s no way to run an airline.
Allegiant simply didn’t have the physical assets (spare planes, equipment, replacements), that could be swapped for another flight. This happens all the time on the major carriers. A plane not scheduled to depart for hours is swapped with a plane that has a mechanical issue giving mechanics more time to solve it. Regardless, passengers are on their way despite a delay.
But in the time of COVID-19, every airline is more or less Allegiant. The schedule is too thin.
Reductions in schedule have made the slightest flight issue an overnight affair. Instead of hopping on the next one, passengers are left with few to no options.
Case in point, I had a business meeting in Colorado this week. I chose to fly RSW-CLT-DEN because the direct flights were overpriced compared to one-stop service on American, a carrier I loved then left.
Following a mechanical delay, I missed my connection in Charlotte – a story for another post – and found myself there for 7.5 hours while I awaited my replacement flight. Options on other carriers were sold out, and due to few flights running, even another connection to Denver would have yielded just a 30-minute gain but put me at a risk of another airport’s problems.
The reduction of schedule took American from several flights daily to Denver International Airport, down to an 11:30 AM, 7 pm, and 8:30 pm only.
Airlines have banked flights for as long as I can remember, but in so doing, they now have very few options when things don’t go as planned. For business people that are flying, for people that need to fly to care for a sick relative, or even for those that just want to get away for their own sanity, it’s a problem. Airlines do not have suffieicent elasticity in their operations for anything to go wrong right now.
COVID-19 Secondary Effects
This is not a direct effect of the spread of COVID-19, it’s a secondary effect. While the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) hasn’t mandated a closure of FAA facilities, guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have advised against non-essential air travel to protect the public health of the United States. Lack of flights is a product of those choosing to stay at home, social distance, avoid close contact with others which removed the market for airlines – not travel restrictions by state governments.
Some argue that if you would just wash your hands, wear a mask, and truly quarantine for 14 days fewer people would test positive for COVID-19 and air traffic controllers would be as busy as they ever were. But as there are secondary effects from COVID-19 that don’t have anything to do with healthy choices, there may be secondary effects from scaling back up too.
Rather than spend a Tuesday afternoon in the AMEX Centurion lounge I considered declaring a trip-in-vain and returning to Florida. Rescheduling a meeting is easy and my remaining day in Colorado would have been an exhausting nightmare, at no fault of my own.
While I always budget enough time in my plans for a flying delay, COVID-19 has compounded that issue. But due to minimal flight options, returning to Florida would have netted me about the same result. In a year with few meetings, this one was important and worthwhile continuing.
Others who find themselves in the same situation may want to consider utilizing trip-in-vain cancellation and refund options if significantly delayed without a reasonable alternative.
If and when travelers choose to fly before the industry returns to a full schedule, old problems like mechanical delays become far more difficult in the new environment. Replacement flights are not as readily available as they once were. As travelers return, secondary flight options may not have seats for misconnected passengers compounding issues as airlines passengers return. Airlines might need to consider unbanking flight schedules and including more space between flights to allow for their own mistakes.
What do you think? Should airlines add more flexibility into their schedules given the lack of alternatives?