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Americans look to the road rather than the skies this summer, experts say

Posted April 30, 2020 1:33 p.m. EDT

— After weeks of lockdown, some Americans are showing the first signs of readiness to travel again.

Airplanes -- the few still flying -- are growing slightly fuller, according to industry data, and the rate of people screened at airport security checkpoints has trended upwards nearly every day for the last two weeks.

But the travel world is still bracing for an extended rough patch due to the coronavirus pandemic.

David Calhoun, Boeing's president and CEO, told investors on Wednesday that a "full recovery will take years, not months."

American Airlines CEO Doug Parker on Wednesday warned not to expect a major increase in flying as the summer begins, and that the "recovery will be slow and demand for air travel will be suppressed for quite some time."

Like the tenuous steps states are taking to re-open their economies, experts are predicting travel will make a gradual comeback.

"We believe that travel will return but it will come back in phases," said Erika Richter of the American Society of Travel Advisors. The first to resume traveling, she said, may be luxury travelers more insulated from the economic downturn.

"Everyone is going to have a different health profile, everyone is going to have a different level of risk tolerance, everyone is going to have different financial situations," Richter told CNN.

Airline industry data shows marginally more passengers are boarding planes.

The average number of paying passengers on each domestic flight climbed from about 10 earlier this month to 17, according to the industry group Airlines for America, though that is partly due to airlines' aggressive efforts to cut from schedules and reduce the number of nearly empty planes flown. Airlines have eliminated about 80 percent of capacity and nearly half of the US fleet of commercial passenger planes is grounded, the group said.

The open road versus the open skies

The pandemic has some people reconsidering what a summer vacation will look like and staying closer to home.

"We definitely think the drive market will reopen sooner and that leisure travel will probably come back before business travel," said Tori Barnes of the U.S. Travel Association.

For example, she said, someone in the nation's capital may consider driving to nearby cities like Baltimore, Maryland, or Richmond, Virginia, rather than spending several hours in an aircraft cabin. Road trips may also be more budget-friendly for Americans who have lost, or are concerned about losing, their jobs -- while still making it possible "to get out of your home for a little while."

Those who do return to the skies will be met with a noticeably different experience, from nearly empty airport concourses -- some with shops closed -- to flight crews in masks. JetBlue and Frontier said this week they will require all passengers to wear masks aboard planes, and many airlines are responding to calls from the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA for more widespread mask requirements among crewmembers. In a recent letter, the union also encouraged government leaders to consider restrictions on leisure travel.

Protecting those inside the cabin

Several airlines are blocking off middle seats or spacing passengers throughout the aircraft cabin, particularly after backlash in March over passengers being crowded together into single areas while other rows remained empty.

Airlines are cutting down on contact between flight attendants and passengers, substituting pre-packaged drinks and snacks -- if that service is even available at all. Some provide packaged sanitizer wipes when passengers board.

The airline industry is also pushing for the Transportation Security Administration to include a health screening as part of its regimen for travelers.

"It's just another element of security, if you will, just making sure that you don't have people on an airplane that could infect others," Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said on a call this week.

Then there are behind-the-scenes changes, like more intense cleaning regimens between flights. Cleaning crews are using sprayer devices or fogging machines to rid cabin surfaces of germs.

The future of travel

It is unclear what the travel picture for this summer will look like.

Kelly, the Southwest CEO, said in a CNN International interview his airline has bookings for June and July but does not yet know whether customers will keep them or cancel.

"We're beginning to see states and cities open back up again," Kelly said. "So one would think that people will also want to begin traveling again and we're hopeful that that will happen."

Richter of the American Society of Travel Advisors said her members are helping their customers think about a longer horizon.

"Travel advisors are talking to their clients about what their future travel dreams are and providing them options that might be available in 2021 or further," she said.

And there's another option -- to look for adventures in remote places.

Nick Jaynes of Overland Expo, which trains people for off-grid adventures and showcases gear, said traditional travelers could re-think what their vacation looks like -- and get better acquainted with the area around then.

Rather than a trip to Cancun, pack up the car for "four days only traversing 150 miles in your state this summer."

"You find a lot of enjoyment along the way," he said.

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