Despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and social distancing guidelines advising people stay six feet apart, reports of terrified airline passengers on packed flights continue to emerge.
Just this week, passengers on an Iberian Airlines flight became incensed over their crowded flight, which had jammed the plane to 70 percent capacity despite airline guidelines to have the cabin no more than half full.
And photos from a United Airlines flight last week showed passengers sitting shoulder-to-shoulder — while a doctor returning from helping fight the virus in New York had a similar experience with the carrier.
Experts spoke to The Post why it keeps happening — and what, if anything, can be done to make flying safer.
Why are airplane flights still packed?
The coronavirus has grounded 90 percent of the nation’s passenger jets, so airlines are trying to sell as many tickets as they can on the few flights they have left, experts said.
“Airlines are burning cash at a prodigious rate, and they will do that under the existing business plans until somewhere this summer,” said Robert Mann of R.W. Mann & Company, a leading airline industry analysis firm based in Port Washington.
“There really is no demand right now, as a practical matter. There’s no economic demand, which is to say there’s no demand at a price point where airlines can make money.”
Still, the viral videos likely come from people on the cheapest flights, Mann said.
“The videos that go viral are those cases of adventurous folks who bought a $49 fare expecting to be on an empty plane,” he said.
A crowded United Airlines flight from Newark to San Francisco.Ethan Weiss via REUTERS
And airlines insist they are trying to make space.
In a statement, United Airlines said the vast majority of its remaining flights are less than half full — but conceded that “because our schedule is so reduced, there are a smaller number of flights where our customers are finding planes fuller than they expected.”
Southwest Airlines, which has an open-seating policy, said it has reduced the number of seats booked by one-third, while JetBlue officials said the airline “is capping most of its flights in order to provide some level of distancing onboard whenever possible.”
American Airlines said it “will not assign” half of the seats on the company’s planes and will allow passengers to change seats “as long as there aren’t any aircraft weight or balance restrictions.”
Is flying still safe?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says viruses and germs do not spread as easily on flights “because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes.”
“However,” the agency warns, “there may be a risk of getting COVID-19 on crowded flights if there are other travelers on board with COVID-19.”
According to one expert, no preventive measures can really ensure proper social distancing while flying.
“There’s no space on a plane where you have six feet around you between you and another person,” said Anthony Santella, an associate professor of public health at Hofstra University.
“There’s no way to escape and maintain physical distancing on a plane.”
Even on a flight that is a third or half full, where everyone is wearing masks, there are still risks, he said.
“Just think about it: The consequences of being around people and highly touched surfaces for a long period of time,” Santella said.
AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis
Passengers in line at Vilnius International Airport in Vilnius, Lithuania.
AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis
Harrowing video shows a home intruder standing over the bed…
When will air travel return to normal?
It’s unclear if the airline industry will return to full health anytime soon, with air carriers burning through $10 billion a month since the outbreak of COVID-19 — a hefty figure despite a $25 billion industry bailout package approved by Congress.
Many airlines have reported that in-flight coronavirus restrictions will remain in place at least through this month. But those deadlines may be extended depending on the status of the virus — and pending on assessments by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the meantime, JP Beitler of PlaneFinder.com said his business booking private flights has skyrocketed with customers looking to avoid packed planes.
“In the case of the airlines, they’re really in between a dog and fire hydrant,” said Beitler.
“Now everyone is focused on, ‘Is traveling on the airline safe?” he added. “I don’t think the issue about traveling and sitting on an airplane and getting sick is really the issue. It’s, ‘Am I going to be in close contact with someone else by virtue of getting on the airplane, and is that going to get me sick?’”