The Skies will be Busier in 2021


Photo by Stefano Ukmar.

Angela Li

A Boeing 737 airplane that filled 143 people in 2018 would have filled 84 people in 2020, near the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Load factors, the technical phrase for plane capacity, dropped from 85% in 2019 to 59% in the first 11 months of 2020, according to the Bureau of Transportation.

A major reason for this drop was the lack of passenger interest due to COVID-19 related worries, especially since CDC guidelines advised against air travel. For many students at the Bergen County Academies (BCA), concerns about the safety of flying and the COVID-19 risks associated with airplanes and airports also influenced their travel plans.

Kayla Luga, a sophomore in ABF, shared that the dangers of the pandemic made air travel even less appealing to her parents, who did not like taking planes anyway. “I don’t think my family would have been comfortable [flying] at all. My parents are both healthcare workers so they have experienced the dangers of the pandemic firsthand. Because of that, they’re way more cautious than most people.”

Students who have flown in 2020 have been extra careful with cleaning and social distancing procedures in the air. “I sanitized everywhere near my area, regardless if I was going to touch it, and at least three times,” said Christine Koushagjian, a freshman in AAST, “I was beyond careful and I made sure my family was, too.”

The airport scene seems to be changing this summer, however, as passenger counts at U.S. airports gradually close in on 2 million, according to Transportation Security Administration screening data.

Rising vaccination rates and the possibility of herd immunity in recent months have contributed to this increase in air travelers. As of May 28th, the latest Kaiser Family Foundation COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor shows that 62% of adults in the U.S. have gotten at least one dose of vaccine, and about a third of adults who will “wait and see” also plan to get the vaccine in the next three months. For Reia Lee, a freshman in AAST, it was important for her family to be fully vaccinated before deciding to plan their upcoming trip to Japan.

The gradual lessening of travel restrictions has also given travelers more destination options for 2021 and reduced some of the anxiety that came with strict requirements such as mandated quarantines. “Doing road trips was my family’s thing last summer.” Kayla said, “It was one of the only COVID-safe ways we could do anything… but I think we’re planning on going farther than just the northeast U.S. now that restrictions are being lifted.”

Importantly, pent-up demand for traveling or visiting family abroad also means that more people will consider returning to the skies, as a Longwoods International survey reported on February 9th. In the survey, 81% of respondents planned to travel in the next six months, up from 65% in the same survey released in mid-January.

Reia and her family find themselves in a similar situation to these survey respondents. Although they usually go to Japan to visit relatives every year, her family “hasn’t been able to for a while, especially with the pandemic interruptions in 2020.” Reia explained, “We decided to go [this year] even with the COVID-19 risks because it has been too long since we last went, and Japan is a pretty low-risk area.”

As airports and airlines gradually return to usual passenger volumes, COVID-19 procedures remain important considerations for BCA students planning to travel this year. “COVID-19 has definitely made people more conscious of their cleanliness,” said Kayla, “so I think airlines need to go above and beyond in [with their sanitary procedures] in order to get more people to fly again.”

Christine expressed similar thoughts about the lasting importance of sanitation for air traveling. “I think the future of traveling on airplanes is to continue with COVID-19 procedures, even as it dies down. Masks don’t only prevent the coronavirus, but plenty of other common sicknesses,” Christine said. “Cleanliness is important no matter what.”

BCA students planning to fly domestically or internationally this year can check the travel restrictions and exceptions for their destinations at these sources: