Now, as summer travel season starts, some travelers are complaining about the opposite: flying on planes that are surprisingly full. They are frustrated that airlines aren’t doing more to space people out or limit the number of passengers on planes.
“This is the last time I’ll be flying again for a very long time,” he wrote, after posting a photograph of a nearly full plane cabin.
Last weekend, Representative Jared Huffman, a Democrat who represents a stretch of California’s coast north of San Francisco, wrote about a similar experience on his way back to Washington.
What Mr. Huffman and Dr. Weiss experienced was unusual, but not unique. Here’s why.
I thought flights were empty. What gives?
They were, and they are. Usually.
The vast majority of flights in the United States — about three out of four — are less than half full, according to Airlines for America, an industry organization. And only about one in 12 flights is more than 70 percent full, though that figure may grow as more travelers start to fly and airlines better align their schedules with demand.
Early in the pandemic, there was a glut of empty flights as airlines struggled to keep up with people canceling or skipping flights. Schedules are largely set weeks in advance, and airlines didn’t know how many passengers would board their planes.
Over time, however, airlines have gotten a better handle on demand and slashed their schedules. United, for example, cut flights in May by about 90 percent. Delta Air Lines has cut 85 percent of its flights over the three months ending in June.
“That means that people who are on four individual flights are now on one — the single flight that remains,” said Robert Mann, an industry analyst and consultant.
Weren’t airlines supposed to block middle seats?
That depends on the airline — and the fine print.
As Dr. Weiss pointed out, United told customers in an email that it was “automatically blocking middle seats to give you enough space on board,” but the airline has since clarified its policy. Customers may not be able to select a middle seat at purchase, but United can still assign them one. The company said it could not guarantee empty seats but would let passengers rebook if their flights were more than 70 percent full.
By comparison, Delta has promised to cap seating at 50 percent of its capacity in first class and 60 percent elsewhere. American Airlines has said it will block half of all middle seats on its planes. Southwest Airlines, which does not assign seats, has resisted making such pronouncements, but has said it will temporarily reduce how many passengers it books on every flight.
Why don’t airlines just fly with fewer people?
It’s easy to limit capacity when demand is very low, but airlines can’t afford to do so forever.
The industry tends to operate on slim profit margins. In North America, an airline breaks even only on flights that are at least 75 percent full, on average, according to the International Air Transport Association.
To cover the cost of social-distancing measures, those North American airlines would have to raise average fares by 43 percent, to $289 from $202 last year, according to the association.
“Eliminating the middle seat will raise costs,” Alexandre de Juniac, the association’s chief executive, said this month. “If that can be offset with higher fares, the era of affordable travel will come to an end.”
Still, airlines are facing growing pressure to do something about packed flights as they start to see the beginnings of a tepid and choppy recovery.
“As air travelers gradually return, they must feel confident that they will be safe from the coronavirus,” Ms. Cantwell wrote in a letter on Monday urging the transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, to formalize guidelines for airlines.
Are airlines doing anything to keep passengers safe?
While airlines are not yet uniformly keeping passengers six feet apart, they have been trying to put travelers at ease by requiring masks, frequently disinfecting planes and boarding planes back to front to limit interactions among passengers.
In an effort to show customers that it’s taking the pandemic seriously, United said this week that it was teaming up with Clorox and the Cleveland Clinic: Clorox will consult on the airline’s disinfection practices and provide amenities to travelers at some locations, while the Cleveland Clinic will offer advice and keep the airline updated on the latest best practices.
Airlines are also adding sneeze guards and kiosks that can be operated without being touched. They are also scrapping meal service.
Who is still flying anyway?
On any given day, the Transportation Security Administration is screening between only 8 percent and 10 percent of the approximately 2.5 million people it processed at airport checkpoints a year ago. But while most Americans are staying home, tens of thousands still get on planes every day — and that number appears to be rising.
Many travelers are visiting loved ones who are old or ill, or are traveling to be closer to family after months in isolation. There are also medical professionals like Dr. Weiss, who was part of a group of nurses and doctors who had gone to New York City to help hospitals struggling with an influx of virus cases. Others are flying for work.
That was the case for David Chou, a health care executive from Kansas City, Mo., who recently took his first flight in months, to Houston, where he had just accepted a new job. Mr. Chou was fortunate that only about a dozen passengers were on the flight. But he was disappointed to find that some weren’t wearing masks. It wasn’t a major problem, but it did make him rethink whether he would fly again.
“If volume picks up and people are not practicing social distancing or even wearing masks, I would be hesitant on taking additional flights,” he said.
With airlines seeing early signs of a recovery, people like him may soon have to reckon with whether it’s worth getting on a plane at all.