Good afternoon, and welcome aboard Perfectly SafeAir. We know you'd rather not be on any aircraft just now, even one that's been freshly sterilized from wingtip to wingtip. We appreciate your choosing to fly with us today! And we want you to know that you are safer on this aircraft than you would be anywhere else. Now sit back half an inch, keep your seat belt buckled, stop thinking about viruses, and enjoy your flight.
There is something in overstated assurances of safety that deflates confidence, rather than inspires it.
People have every reason to be cautious about flying during the days of COVID-19. With flights to many foreign destinations banned, getting on a plane probably means travel within the United States — and the pandemic in a number of U.S. cities is getting worse, not better. The governors of some states in the East now require that visitors from 16 other states enter a 14-day quarantine upon arrival. The U.S. military has restricted service personnel from visiting Florida, Michigan and California.
It's a simple fact that, at a major airport, one is likely to encounter a crowd of other people, some of whom could be coming from a place with high rates of infection. It's not hyperbole to say that it's safer to stay home.
Yet the damage to the U.S. airline industry is potentially devastating. Among the sectors of the economy being ravaged by COVID-19, air travel stands out. The industry is losing hundreds of millions of dollars a day, and although it has begun to creep back toward normal, no one knows when it will recover.
So it makes sense that the airlines and the airports that serve them would go to lengths to protect passengers, and even greater lengths to inform them of those efforts. They point to the energetic air-handling systems on modern aircraft, and the high-efficiency filters that trap viruses. They list the objects that people most often touch, in airports and on airplanes, and describe the exacting care with which they disinfect them.
Some airlines point out that they are leaving middle seats empty, except in rows occupied by families traveling together. They tout their use of electrostatic fogging machines. They say they've placed social-distancing markings in the jetways and hand-washing stations at every gate.
All of it is welcome news to a prospective traveler, but it's undercut by overly optimistic assurances like this statement by Brian Ryks, CEO of the Metropolitan Airports Commission:
"We are here today to answer this question many people are asking, and that is: 'Can I feel confident that appropriate steps have been taken to make it safe for me to fly again?' And the resounding answer is, 'Absolutely yes.' … What we are saying is that if you do travel, we have a safe environment. We are implementing steps to ensure that you can be confident in your travel experience."
There's nothing wrong with asserting that the airport is as safe as any other public facility, or that aircraft are as safe as a train or a bus. In fact, the air-handling system on an airplane may make it safer. But there is something amiss in asserting that any enclosed place where strangers gather for extended periods is a "safe environment." The word "safe" connotes a knowledge about how to manage the novel coronavirus that no one yet has.
It would be better for airports and airlines to grapple with the uncertainty and admit that they are doing the best they can. Rather than promising a "safe environment" that they can't deliver, they should say something like: We're making your environment as safe as we know how to make it. When we learn of something else we can do, we'll do that.
Thanks for flying with us.