The coronavirus restrictions have provoked several unusual phenomena such as the sudden extensive use of masks, closed businesses, and of course, abandoned streets. Among others, near-empty airplanes with a 96% drop in passenger numbers flying through the air are resulting in ‘Huge environmental waste.’
The global demand for air travel has slashed due to widespread travel restrictions, and more than eight in 10 flights canceled. However, a disparity has been noticed in the US. While the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has reported a 96% slump in the volume of passengers, to a level not seen since 1954, this is quite unmatched with the number of flights being scrapped.
The flights, slightly more than half have been canceled within the US, leading to a slew of near-empty flights. There was less than one passenger in 10 seats on domestic flights last week, according to an estimate by Dan Rutherford, aviation director at the International Council on Clean Transportation.
“The evidence suggests that the number of people flying is dropping faster than the flights, so there are a lot of empty planes,” he said. “The airlines are left to figure this out for themselves, and they are playing catch-up.”
As planes are burning huge amounts of fuel to transport just a handful of people around America, the situation is leading to “huge environmental waste,” Rutherford mentioned.
In March, Sheryl Pardo shared a video of her being the only passenger to check in to an American Airlines flight from Washington to Boston after being upgraded to first-class and given a personalized safety briefing. Meanwhile, a Virgin Atlantic flight from London to New York subsequently carried only seven people.
The aviation industry contributed to about 2% of global carbon emissions concentrated among the small fraction of the world’s population that flies regularly. With the reduction in flights, emissions from the sector dropping by almost a third last month, and it is expected to reduce pollution levels, the Financial Times has reported.
However, as the COVID-19 crisis ends, passenger numbers may well bounce back quickly.
“You have dips around recessions, but within two or three years, it returns,” said Rutherford. “I imagine leisure travel will recover pretty quickly. In the boom years, airlines have eased off on attempts to improve fuel efficiency – what was going on was not sustainable. The million-dollar question is whether we will curb flying to protect the climate, as we are now doing to protect public health.”
Under the new stimulus package, the US airline industry got $25bn in assistance to deal with the sharp downturn in business. In return, the airlines are required to maintain a certain level of service, which includes running of near-empty flights.
However, running an airline can also be economical as flying a commercial airliner to a planned destination can sometimes be cheaper than paying for a spot to park it.
More than one-third of the US fleet, about 2,400 aircraft, has been parked, with airlines bearing cash at more than $10bn per month as cancellations “far outpace” new bookings, according to Airlines for America, an industry group. Planes’ “load factors” of 80% in January reduced to just 11% in April.
“The novel coronavirus pandemic has had, and continues to have, a severe and unprecedented impact on the US airline industry,” a spokeswoman for the lobby group said, adding that flights are also shifting important cargo such as medical supplies, food, and mail.
Doug Parker, chief executive of American Airlines, said: “Those that are flying today are doing so for important reasons.”
It was “still somewhat rare” for a single passenger to be on a flight and said that the company had made investments in more sustainable fuel to make its carbon footprint lower, a spokesman for United said.
The questions arise on the commitment of airlines in general in addressing the climate crisis during the coronavirus shutdown, however.
Although airlines are lobbying to rewrite the global agreement rules designed to tackle aviation emissions, things are getting tougher for them to meet the said targets with the coronavirus outbreak.
Campaigners accused airlines of attempting to “dodge their obligations,” but the industry said it was “a matter of survival.”