Working in travel in this COVID environment is difficult in so many ways. There’s the slowdown in bookings, the uncertainty of when this will end, and the seemingly constant stream of bad news about the virus.
If you spend too much time on social media, it’s even worse. The barrage of posts from friends and colleagues about new cases, infectivity rates, or studies by this group or that one, can spiral you into a COVID depression. Not only is it dizzying, but sometimes it’s hard to know what’s real and what isn’t.
Let’s take the airline industry for example. As a Sept. 19 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article states, “Flying is not as unsafe as many Americans fear, but not risk-free.” I’m afraid that’s as good as it gets right now, ladies and gentlemen. Getting on an airplane comes with risk of contracting the virus. Of course, so does commuting on a train, dining indoors, and going to a private birthday party.
My worry is that some of my colleagues in the media are publishing articles that only muddy the issue. Take the Sept. 19, Washington Post story, with the headline: “Nearly 11,000 people have been exposed to the coronavirus on flights, the CDC says.”
Seeing a five-digit number in a story about airline passenger COVID cases caught the attention of a lot people I know. I saw this story shared all over Facebook and Twitter when it was published.
But, when you delve deeper into the Post’s reporting, I’m not sure what the objective of the story was. According to the report, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has investigated 1,600 cases of people who flew while at risk of spreading the coronavirus. Approximately 11,000 fellow passengers potentially were exposed to those infected passengers. That’s POTENTIALLY.
In fact, Caitlin Shockey, a spokeswoman for the CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, told the Post that “given the numerous opportunities for potential exposure associated with the entire travel journey and widespread global distribution of the virus,” the CDC “is not able to definitively determine potential cases were associated (or not) with exposure” on those flights.
Study the Studies – Don’t Take Them on Face Value
The Post goes on to cite a paper published in a CDC journal regarding “new studies of flights in Asia and Europe” that have identified instances where scientists think the virus has spread on commercial flights.
But one of those flights was March 2, long before the travel industry and the airlines began incorporating strict protocols to protect travelers. A second incident the Post mentions was an Aug. 25 flight from the Greek Island of Zante to Wales. In that instance, the Post reports, passengers told the BBC that “boarding the plane was a free-for-all and that passengers were lax about wearing masks on the flight.”
So, are either incidents relevant to how air travel operates today? You would think so if you skimmed Business Insider’s Sept. 19 story about the CDC’s findings. The headline: “Even more evidence shows the coronavirus spreads easily on long plane flights.”
Other media outlets reported this summer on an MIT professor’s study that claimed the probability of getting COVID-19 from a nearby infected airline passenger is one in 4,300. (If middle seats are empty, risk goes down to one in 7,700.)
When I spoke with the International Air Transport Association (IATA), they offered their perspective, including a peer-reviewed paper of known cases of on-board coronavirus transmission on Chinese high-speed trains. The average across all the train passengers was 0.3%.
IATA noted that approximately 267 million people flew globally in the second quarter of this year. “If we take just the lower traffic quarter, using the MIT estimates, those passengers should have generated (even using the “empty middle seat” number) over 34,000 cases of in-flight transmission. If 90% of those cases were never detected, we would have at least 3,400 cases of in-flight reported transmissions,” an IATA spokesman told me.
“But what has actually been reported is nothing like that,” the spokesman said.
In fact, as a result of the pandemic, “airlines have added new measures including extra surface cleaning, distancing during boarding, and advising the use of face coverings,” the IATA spokesman said. “The airline environment, as in fact suggested in the MIT conclusions, does not appear to be one of increased risk of transmission.”
What Should We Do?
So, what can we all do? For one thing, we can demand that our representatives in Congress support comprehensive pre-flight testing, and a contact tracing program to respond when an airline passenger turns up COVID positive.
Seven months after the coronavirus sent the airline industry into a tailspin, the United States is woefully behind other regions and nations who have made a commitment to broad testing programs and contact tracing. As a result, their cases per capita are generally lower than in the U.S.
We also should resist the temptation to believe airline cabins are some kind of COVID petri dish. Oakland County (Michigan) epidemiologist Kayleigh Blaney told the Post, “I’m exponentially more concerned with all the graduation parties, the fraternity and sorority parties happening on college campuses, than I am with flying.”
In the Washington Post article, the state of Louisiana said it has not identified any coronavirus clusters involving air travel, versus 41 outbreaks in bars, 41 in restaurants and 25 at day-care centers.
Another thing we can do is be careful about what we read, and what we pass on to our friends and colleagues. Make certain that you read reports thoroughly, looking for when the study was conducted, is it peer-reviewed, and when during the pandemic any transmissions may have occurred.
Finally – just be careful out there. I have dozens of friends traveling every week, many of them travel advisors. They’re wearing masks, washing their hands regularly, social distancing every chance they can. And NONE of them have reported to me that they have gotten sick.
Like I said at the beginning of this column, we are going to have to grow comfortable with uncertainty. We’re just starting to understand this virus, and how it acts. Uncertainty won’t begin to dissipate for many more months – perhaps years – as a reliable body of evidence grows and more scientists and medical researchers compare each other’s work.
So, take control over what you read, how you read it, and how you act, and you will be empowered to take back control of your body, mind, and heart.
Richard D’Ambrosio is a master storyteller who, for more than 30 years, has helped leading brands like American Express, Virgin Atlantic Airways, the Family Travel Association (FTA), and Thomas Cook Travel tell their stories to their customers, the media, and employees. A professional business coach and content marketing consultant with his own firm, Travel Business Mastermind, Richard most recently has worked with The Travel Institute, Flight Centre USA and a variety of host agencies and tour companies, helping entrepreneurs refine their brands and sharpen their sales and marketing skills. Richard writes regularly about retail travel agencies, social media & marketing, and business management.