What’s it like up in the skies right now? KPRC 2 Investigates shows you what social distancing is like while flying

HOUSTON – On April 14, 2019, more than 2 million people took a flight on our nation’s airlines. One year later, on April 14, 2020, just over 87,000 people flew. That’s a staggering 95% drop due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s left the airlines struggling for survival.

The airlines are now offering cheap tickets to try and get passengers back on their planes while at the same time trying to ensure their safety. So Channel 2 Investigates wanted to see how their efforts were going. We chose three flights on three different airlines — United, American, and Southwest — through the four of the busiest airports in the state: Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport and William P. Hobby airports, DFW, and Austin Bergstrom International.

We also reached out to the CEOs of all three airlines asking for an interview, a portion of which would be recorded in-flight, but all three declined our request.

While booking the first leg on United, we saw the promotion of social distancing by limiting or blocking the advance selection of middle seats. There weren’t any middle seats on the plane from Houston to Dallas, and there were plenty of other empty ones. But had the flight been full, social distancing would not have been an option.

We also flew the same day United announced it would provide passengers with individually wrapped hand sanitizing wipes, but our flight didn’t have any. As for other passengers and crew? Most had masks on, but others did not. Donna Gordon, who has been traveling for work throughout the pandemic, was on our flight.

“I just noticed that the flight attendants had their masks underneath their chin and mouth,” she said, “(and that) doesn’t really do anything whenever you put it on your chin.”

Social distancing is also a challenge on the ground. We saw packed security lines and a loaded Skylink train at DFW. On our next flight from Dallas to Austin on American Airlines, a passenger was sold the middle seat next to our photographer. But there were plenty of empty seats on this flight, too, so they moved to one of those for the extra space. And like all of our flights, there was no food or beverage service. When we landed in Austin, flight attendants asked us to exit one row at a time to keep our distance, but a few passengers ignored the request.

Joey Gallardo has flown four times recently, and constantly wears his mask while traveling.

“I work like this all the time so I’m not uncomfortable,” he said. “They are trying to dictate to us how to stay separate but yet we are all in the same airspace.”

How about that air quality? The CDC says: “Because of how air is circulated and is filtered on airplanes, most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights. However, there may be a risk of getting COVID-19 on crowded flights if there are other travelers on board with COVID-19.”

Our final flight of the day, on Southwest, had the fewest passengers of any of our flights. A quick turnaround in Austin made us wonder how often the planes are cleaned.

On its website, Southwest says “We spend more than six hours cleaning each aircraft every night.”

Southwest is also telling its flight crews not to stop passengers from boarding if they refuse to wear a mask. An internal memo says flight attendants should approach the situation with “empathy and respect.” Southwest’s official policy says customers will be asked to wear masks when social distancing is not possible.

Back to April 14, when only 87,000 people were on flights, the TSA numbers show passenger levels haven’t dipped below 100,000 in three weeks, and in the last week alone, they’ve surpassed 200,000 three times. It’s an indication that perhaps bluer skies are ahead for an airline industry that’s navigating through turbulent times.

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