Mike Tanniru reembraced his weekly commute from Keene, New Hampshire to his company headquarters in Harrison, Ohio last month. For Tanniru, a general manager of Cincinnati Test Systems, which has been busy performing quality-control tests on ventilators, that normally means driving across state lines and flying two hours from Hartford to Cincinnati.
But now, with Delta Air Lines no longer offering his typical direct flight, he’s had to add another step: a connection through Philadelphia, Chicago, or Washington, D.C.
“My first trip back, there was no one at the airport and barely anyone on my flight,” he says. “Rules weren’t yet in place, so flight attendants and most passengers weren’t wearing masks.”
The situation has been fast-changing. “By the time I flew home five days later, there were noticeably more people flying,” Tanniru explains, adding that his flights have been full ever since. Masks have become more commonplace, if not consistently mandated. Road warriors, clearly, are back in the air.
From May 1 to June 7 the number of travelers passing through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints more than doubled, from 171,563 to 441,225.
While that’s a far cry from the normal volume of 2.6 million daily passengers, it’s significant progress, says Scott Solombrino, chief executive officer of the Global Business Travel Association. It shows the air travel industry still has a pulse, despite having flatlined throughout March and April.
But for those who are returning to the weekly grind and expecting to find an industry flipped on its head, the new normal looks surprisingly similar to the old one.
Hotels are fine, but getting there is not
An April poll surveying 1,557 of the GBTA’s member companies found that 77% had canceled all international business trips, while 52% had canceled all domestic travel.
But a June follow-up poll showed optimism, with 60% of the 1,708 respondents reporting that they planned to resume domestic travel within two to three months. International travel looks slower to rebound, with 45% of respondents saying they’ll resume within six to eight months.
Regardless of when they pack up and head out again, the same poll suggests that business travelers are most wary about cleanliness on the road, whether it’s in hotels, airplanes, or airports.
When it comes to unified cleaning standards, hotels are leading the pack. On April 27 the American Hotel & Lodging Association – a 27,000-plus-member group that includes 10 of the largest hotel companies in the U.S. – released industrywide guidelines called Safe Stay.
They cover everything including which cleaning products should be used where, how to control for social distancing, and what to do in the event of an in-house Covid-19 outbreak.
Airlines have yet to band together this way. Some carriers, including Delta and Southwest Airlines, have committed to leaving 40% of their seats open to allow for social distance, while United has been publicly criticized for booking full flights (though it’s taking the lead in requiring preflight health checklists and banning passengers who refuse to wear masks).
And empty middle seats aren’t enough to ensure safety, either. Brooke Meek, a fitness studio owner in St Louis, has recently been crisscrossing the Midwest to conduct final walk-throughs of soon-to-open gyms; on a recent Southwest flight, she says, “the gentleman across from me sat down, took his mask off, and was never told to put it back on.” What’s more, she says, “flight attendants would remove [their own masks] to speak to you.”
One consistency: Every time she deplaned, Meek spotted masked and gloved cleaning crews.
“I was really impressed until I reached into the seat pocket on my final flight and found a Chick-fil-A sandwich wrapper,” she says. “I wondered: If they missed this, what else did they miss?”
London-based real estate investor Andy Smith can empathize. A regular on British Airways’ flights between London and Amsterdam, he says masks are a poorly enforced recommendation, at best, for both passengers and crew. And although boarding may be orderly, Smith says, travelers still rush off the plane and touch other people’s overhead bags.
Airports are equally unpredictable. Most have installed social distancing markers to remind travelers to give each other space, but Smith says baggage and arrival halls are as crowded as ever.
At some airports, like Denver International, masks are now being sold in vending machines alongside packs of sanitizing wipes. The Colorado hub has also disabled air hand dryers in restrooms to reduce the spread of germs - a good reminder not to use them anywhere else.
The new rules of the road
Seasoned road warriors already knew to book the first flight of the day to avoid delays; now those early departures offer the best odds at cleanliness, too, because planes are more likely to be thoroughly disinfected overnight than during a quick midday turnaround.
Checking seat assignments has also taken on increased importance, experts say, pointing to frequent aircraft changes and recommending confirming all details 24 hours before departure, so you’re not scrambling to respond to last-minute schedule changes (which have become common).
A window seat near the front of the plane offers minimal exposure to other passengers and their germs; travelers are more likely to stay put when they’re blocked from the aisle, and sitting toward the front means you won’t have to traverse the entire cabin to get on and off the flight.
More sage advice from seasoned travelers: consider packing your own meals. most airport restaurants remain closed, and the one or two that are operational are likely to have packed lines.
Another area burdened by long lines are Uber and Lyft stands. If getting a car was a two-minute affair in pre-pandemic times, Tanniru says it now takes him 15-plus minutes to find a ride; at normally busy airports like New York’s JFK, however, the regular taxi stand has been showing waits of just a minute. Availability of taxis depends largely on the city: Tanniru said he has not seen any on his travels, while Smith said London’s black cabs lines are long.
A good way to circumvent waiting - and improve your odds at a cleaner ride – is to book ahead with a black-car service, says Michael Steiner, executive vice president of travel management company Ovation. “Car companies [including traditional cabs] can maintain direct oversight of cleanliness standards, but ride-shares—you’re trusting an individual,” he says, adding that he expects this to become a new corporate norm.
And don’t forget about quarantine rules, which are difficult to troubleshoot. When greenlighting travel, companies will need to do their homework and assume the potential expense of self-quarantines or rerouted itineraries to get employees home safely.
With state and nationwide restrictions changing from week to week, that can add up, says Mike McGarrity, vice president for global risk services at emergency response provider Global Guardian.
What is 'essential travel'?
A wide array of large companies, from Goldman Sachs and UBS to Google and Apple, are still strongly urging employees to defer all nonessential travel. So what is essential?
It’s not clearly defined. Medical workers are considered essential, as are companies such as Tanniru’s that test leaks in ventilators. For others, like Meek, the decision to travel is highly subjective. Postponing her walk-throughs, she says, would have been possible but costly.
For central Pennsylvania resident Erin Byrne, a chief technology officer at Swiss-based tech company TE Connectivity, the rules are more clear-cut.
Her responsibilities - which include personally onboarding, training, and installing company culture for new employees in Taiwan, Japan, Southern China, and India – normally keep her on the road for 33% of the year. But with international borders closed, it’s not for her to decide whether the travel is essential.
In Byrne’s mind, though, it is. “Sitting down face to face with an employee so that I can understand their motivations or cultural differences helps me better express my expectations as a leader,” she says, adding that time zone differences complicate video meetings.
Breaking bread is the easiest way to establish trust in most Asian cultures, she continues: “When you have someone’s trust, they give much richer feedback. And that’s crucial for running a successful business.”
Tanniru, meanwhile, has decided to avoid restaurants. On a recent business trip to Houston and San Antonio, he felt safe at his mostly empty hotel and had his temperature taken before entering the socially distanced office. Then he took his sales group out to dinner.
“The restaurant was limited to 25% capacity, but no one had masks on while eating, and people were walking around carelessly,” he recalls. “It’s the only time I’ve felt nervous.” Being a father of two and a resident of a small town, he felt a responsibility to get tested when he returned to New Hampshire.
And for most road warriors, regular testing - even without symptoms - may be a best new practice. “The test was negative, but I have to get on a plane again,” Tanniru says. “That’s part of the job.”
This article is published under license from Bloomberg Media: the original article can be viewed here