Traveling and traveling industry in the age of COVID-19

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With Coronavirus outbreak there are some shifts in the traveling industry and the travel itself became a debatable question. How did the virus outbreak hit the air industry? Should we make travel plans? How much do we really risk by doing so?

We tried to cover some of the hot topics of the current changes brought upon the travel industry by COVID — 19.

The travel industry

On March 2, an employee at large online travel agency based in the UK tested positive for coronavirus. The company acted swiftly, closing the office the following morning, undertaking a deep clean, and implementing flexible working arrangements for staff.

The potential impact of a viral epidemic is not the same across the industry. For a hotel or an airline, it’s much harder to arrange for staff to work from home compared with, say, an online travel agency. Even so, many companies are trying to be much more flexible.

Accor, for example, has implemented a range of measures it hopes will not only reassure guests but staff as well.

“Our hotels are taking every measure to minimize the risk of transmission and are following official guidelines as well as advice from medical and government authorities to limit the spread of the virus,” the company said.

These measures include: setting up a global crisis unit; implementing safety procedures in line with local guidance, which in Indonesia has led to the use of temperature controls; canceling business trips to China and other affected countries; allowing telecommuting; and procuring extra hydro-alcoholic gel and masks.

Another hotel company offering certain staff the ability to work from home is Marriott. “We are encouraging our managers to be flexible with their teams allowing them to work from home if needed and to follow the guidance and recommendations of the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention and local health authorities,” a spokesperson said.

The company does not have a travel ban in place “other than travel to and from the impacted countries as recommended by the CDC.”

Hilton said it was pointing staff toward its team member assistance fund, which offers support during global disasters.

Airlines

Airlines across the globe have suspended flights or modified services in response to the coronavirus outbreak. ( Here you can check the list of all canceled flights so far)

FlyBe, a fledgling UK regional airline, likely is closing for good, the first airline casualty of a worldwide coronavirus panic, multiple news outlets reported Wednesday. The airline was expected to go into administration as soon as early Thursday morning, the Financial Times reported. The airline almost certainly operated its last flights on Wednesday night. Although we have to mention that Flybe was in considerable trouble even before the first coronavirus cases hit Europe, drastically decreasing demand for air travel.

The frequently asked question in the days or virus outbreak is are flights really are great risk? A systematic review published in the Journal of Travel Medicine did find examples and evidence of flu virus transmission occurring aboard airline flights. In fact, the authors (Annie Browne, MPH, Sacha St-Onge Ahmad, MPH, and Jonathan S. Nguyen-Van-Tam, DM, from the University of Nottingham and Charles R. Beck, Ph.D. from the University of Bristol) of the publication identified five studies that suggested that air travel can accelerate the spread of influenza to other locations. The flu virus isn’t exactly the same as SARS-CoV2 but both are respiratory viruses and spread in similar ways. So the risk of transmission aboard a flight is real.

The rapid decrease in oil price

With the viral outbreak spreading to more countries, the price of oil has dropped precipitously as global demand weakens even further. Oil industry analysts fear that what they thought was a contained disruption may instead lead to more travel restrictions and even less oil consumed.

But airlines will not evenly benefit from a reduction in the cost of fuel, often their single largest expense, if market prices drop below-hedged values, requiring airlines to pay the hedged amount rather than the cheaper market price.

The difference, a fuel hedging loss, can be large: Air France-KLM Group is facing a fuel hedging loss of $1 billion at current prices. Even after hedging losses, its net fuel bill will be lower than last year’s. But Air France-KLM could be disadvantaged against competing airlines that are less exposed to hedging and, all other factors aside can offer cheaper tickets due to lower fuel inputs.

There’s still a chance for the industry to surmount the crisis with just some first and maybe second quarter bruises if the outbreak slows and life returns to normal by early summer. Perhaps it’s just airline demand delayed, not destroyed. China, it seems, shows some faint signs of a rebound. But right now, the world is a scene of canceled business meetings, canceled trips, panicked travelers, government travel warnings, disrupted economies, and tanking stock markets.

To travel or not to travel

Are you having trouble deciding whether to cancel or postpone your travel plans? One could argue the case both ways — that low-risk destinations are no problem to travel to. Or alternatively, that it’s irresponsible to travel — especially the carefree, leisure kind — at such a time. We say that first of all you should travel smart.

The first thing you should do is check to see where you will be going and cross-check it with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) Coronavirus Disease 2019 Information for Travel website. In general, it is a good idea to know where you and your airplane will be going. But additionally, the CDC website should have up-to-date information on COVID-19 risk by country. Look for your listed destination on the interactive world map on the CDC website that offers the latest warnings and precautions.

If your destination has some major travel warnings or restrictions, then the answer may be easy. For example, China and Iran fall into the category of “widespread sustained (ongoing) transmission”, Italy is currently under complete lockdown and there are restrictions on entry to the United States.” That means that you shouldn’t consider traveling to these countries unless you absolutely have to do so (you can definitely forget about Italian pasta). South Korea and Italy are listed as having “widespread sustained (ongoing) transmission,” which also means that postponing travel to these countries is a good idea. There’s a warning about Japan as well if you are an older adult or someone with a chronic medical condition.

Traveling by plane

Let’s be clear where the real risks may be with air travel. For example, how much of a risk is the recycled air in airplanes? Well, the air does go through HEPA filters. HEPA stands for “high-efficiency particulate air [filter]” and is supposed to filter out at least 99.97% of microbes, dust, pollen, mold, and any airborne particles that are 0.3 microns (µm) in size. The filter may even be more efficient at filtering particles that are smaller or larger than 0.3 µm, such as French fries.

Assuming that the HEPA filter is working properly then you may not have to worry so much about the air nozzle overhead that’s creating a mini-tornado on your face. Plus, SARS-CoV2 can only travel so far in the air. It’s not as if they have little wings. Viruses don’t drink Red Bull. Instead, they hitch rides on respiratory droplets that come out of an infected person through coughing, sneezing, spitting, or the like. These droplets can travel up to three to six feet from the person so you are probably more likely to catch respiratory viruses like coronaviruses and flu viruses through touching things that have been contaminated with the virus.

That includes body parts like hands or surfaces like seat belt buckles and Baby Yoda figurines that have been touched by someone infectious. Quite a few of the surfaces in an airplane cabin would be considered “high touch,” meaning that different people touch them frequently. These include tray tables, seats, seat belts, video monitors, and that crypt-like pocket in the back of the seat in front of you.

That’s why, if you do fly, limiting what you touch, washing your hands thoroughly and frequently, and not touching your face with unwashed hands will be more important than holding your breath for the entire duration of the six-hour or so flight. Hand sanitizer can help but make sure you use it properly. Use enough sanitizer to cover all parts of your hands. Then massage your hands together as if they were the main characters in a romance novel. Keep up the rubbing until they become dry. Washing your hands with soap and water, if done properly, is always better than just using hand sanitizer.

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In general, this doesn’t seem to be the best time to schedule optional travel. There’s still a fair amount of uncertainty. So if you can easily cancel your air travel, then you may want to do so. If your travel isn’t completely optional, try to identify alternatives such as video-conferencing or sending a gigantic cake. Cutting down air travel not only may decrease your risk of getting sick but also reduce the risk of you carrying the virus to others who may be of even greater risk for bad health outcomes if they have other diseases or are older. It ain’t a bad thing for the environment either.

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