The Dangers Of Air Travel Right Now – And The Silver Lining

(CNN) — The year is off to a rough start for air travelers.

Widespread cancellations, linked in part to the spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus among airline personnel, have piled up over Christmas and into 2022.

And the highly transferable variant has re-intensified personal risk calculations around routine activities, including air travel.

A silver lining for those flying in the first few months of 2022: Airfares have fallen.

Here’s where things stand for air travelers as 2022 kicks off:

Omicron makes everything complicated

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus is up to three times more contagious than the Delta variant, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday.

So is the risk of air travel greater with Omicron?

“Hard to say because it depends on whether you’re talking about infection or hospitalization,” said Linsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech who studies how viruses travel through the air.

“Certainly, the risk of getting infected is higher because Omicron is so easily transmissible and partially escapes the vaccine, but the risk of hospitalization may not be significantly different if you’re vaccinated and boosted,” Marr said via email.

dr. David Powell, medical adviser to the International Air Transport Association, recently said in an interview with Bloomberg News that the risk of in-flight infection with Omicron could be two to three times greater than Delta’s.

“The relative risk has probably increased, just as the relative risk of going to the grocery store or catching a bus has increased with Omicron,” Powell said.

The group released a statement the following day, underlining that “the aircraft cabin remains a very low-risk environment for contracting COVID-19, although Omicron appears to be more transmissible than other variants in all environments.”

The statement highlights the rate of air exchange and filtration and the direction of airflow in aircraft cabins as contributing factors to the low-risk environment.

Large commercial jets have ventilation systems with high-performance HEPA filters that are able to remove small particles in the air, making the air on board cleaner than in most closed public spaces.

Travelers wait in security lines at Miami International Airport on Jan. 3.

Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

But the rest of the flying experience — standing in security lines, traveling on airport trains and shuttles, and waiting to board in tight jet bridges — means a lot of exposure to other people.

“Because Omicron is so easily portable, travelers should upgrade to an N95, KN95 or KF94 respirator,” said Marr.

If those specialized masks are not possible, a surgical mask is better than a cloth mask. With a surgical mask, tightening the ear loops, wearing a close-fitting cloth mask over them, or tying the ear loops and tucking the mask in will improve protection, Marr said.

“Be careful with food if you have to take off your mask, and try to do it outside if possible, or as far away from other people as possible,” she said.

Trying to stagger passengers’ food and drinks on board — the times when mask removal is allowed — is helpful, Powell told Bloomberg.

And if you are not vaccinated?

Flight cancellations are piling up

Flight cancellations and delays are another travel concern at the moment.

On Monday, cancellations peaked during the holiday season, with more than 3,200 flights canceled to, from or within the United States, according to flight tracking site FlightAware.com.

Bad weather over the New Year’s weekend caused disruptions that became widespread on Christmas Eve. From December 24 through January 4, more than 20,300 flights were canceled from, to or within the United States, FlightAware data shows. In the same period, nearly 83,000 flights were delayed.

“I expect January to be a tough month, not just for air travel, but for the entire country,” said Brett Snyder, president of Cranky Concierge Travel Assistance and a former airline employee. “Even if the cases are usually mild, especially for those vaccinated, that still requires people to stay away from work for a while, and that will disrupt flights if enough crew members get sick at any given time.”

Kathleen Bangs, a former pilot and spokesperson for FlightAware, pointed out that in late December, flight crews were hitting Federal Aviation Administration limits on their flight hours, making it difficult to find crew members “who had enough hours to spare to take additional flights.” overtime, etc.”

January means a reset on those monthly limits. “Now the slate is clear again for the coming weeks,” Bangs said. January isn’t typically a busy month for US air travel either, she noted.

Bangs suggests flying non-stop whenever possible. If you’re dealing with a long delay or cancellation, head to the airline’s website or app instead of queuing at the gate or on the phone, she advises.

Snyder encourages travelers to book longer connections to give themselves a buffer in the event of delays, but he said there is “no panacea” because illness and weather are unpredictable.

“Otherwise, it’s important to keep perspective here,” Snyder said. “Even with all these cancellations, 9 out of 10 flights have been operated, so the vast majority of people will be fine.”

On the worst days of this holiday season for cancellations — January 1 through January 3 — FlightAware shows that approximately 10% to 13% of flights were canceled.

The good news, if you’re going on a trip soon

Better news for soon-to-be-flying travelers: U.S. domestic airline tickets are generally relatively cheap compared to the same time in recent years, according to analysis by travel app Hopper.

According to Hopper economist Adit Damodaran, the domestic U.S. airfare will average $239/round in January 2022, down 17% from January 2019 and 12% from January 2020.

“We expect the Omicron variant to dampen travel demand and lead to lower airfares for domestic travel in the first two months of 2022,” Damodaran said, before demand starts to pick up again in mid-February.

Around April, Hopper expects to see 2019 prices again in the domestic market.

There is also good news about airline tickets for international travelers.

“We certainly view international airfare as very cheap at this point compared to years past, approaching historic lows of $600/roundtrip that we last observed during the Delta variant wave in late summer 2021,” Damodaran said. .

The price of $659/return from January 2022 is down 12% from January 2019 and 8% from January 2020.

Damodaran expects rates at home and abroad to rise by single-digit percentages each month towards the summer.

While prices may rise, there is hope that the number of cases will drop and make travel safer and smoother by 2022.

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