Cheap fares luring travellers to fly despite pandemic

With the coronavirus pandemic escalating in the U.S. and overseas, Dylcia McBlackwell couldn’t justify taking a single spring vacation. Air fares were so cheap, she decided to book three.

Now the 39-year-old food service worker from Chicago has tickets to fly to Denver to visit friends next month followed by a May trip to Charleston, South Carolina. After that, she’s booked a flight to Costa Rica. All for a combined total of $435 for trips that might normally cost $700 or more.

“You have just one life to live,” said McBlackwell, who plans to bring wipes to disinfect the tray tables in front of her airplane seats, and perhaps her own snacks. “Are you going to spend it sitting in your house scared? I’d rather be out enjoying it.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover.

Regardless, airlines are seeing bookings plummet and cancellations soar as fear of infection causes many Americans to avoid flying. Travel to the U.S. has been barred from most of Europe, China and Iran. Domestically, business conferences, sporting events, music festivals and other large public gatherings have been scrapped or postponed.

Airlines have been slashing flight schedules, especially on international routes, to cope with downward-spiraling demand from fearful leisure customers and a slowdown in business travel. One industry trade group has warned the pandemic could cost airlines worldwide up to $113 billion in revenue.

The proliferation of empty airline seats has some travellers making spur-of-the-moment ticket purchases to take advantage of steeply discounted prices.

“Travel is one of my favourite things to do and I’m always looking at flights to different places,” said Nick Williams of Muncie, Indiana. “I have never seen flights this cheap before.”

During his recent spring break, the 22-year-old Ball State University student paid $110 round trip to visit friends in Orlando, Florida. As soon as he returned to Indiana, he spotted a weekend fare back to Orlando for just $65.

“I was in Muncie for less than 48 hours,” said Williams, who hopped right back onto a plane to Florida. “I felt a little crazy doing it. But those opportunities don’t always arise.”

Williams isn’t oblivious to the coronavirus. Since his Florida trips, Ball State has cancelled in-person classes for the rest of the spring semester. Courses will still be held online, but Williams said the campus seems eerily quiet. Unafraid to fly domestically, he’s ruled out overseas trips for now.

And cheap fares aren’t expected to overcome many travellers’ fears.

“If you are scared of flying, you are probably scared at any price,” Delta President Glen Hauenstein said recently.

Asked about younger travellers taking advantage of cheap airfares, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams told reporters Thursday that those visiting countries where coronavirus is spreading should avoid contact with older relatives and family with chronic medical conditions for 14 days after returning.

“Don’t come home and then visit grandma in the nursing home,” Adams told a news conference in New Orleans. “Don’t go hang out around grandpa at Easter dinner and tell him all about the great trip that you just had to Europe.”

Yago Ferreira didn’t think much about the virus when he booked two trips earlier this month. The 27-year-old tech salesman from Belmont, California, is set to fly to Brazil in August for $800 — a little more than half what he’s used to paying for his annual trip to see family. He also picked up a $250 ticket for an Easter trip to surprise his mother in New Jersey.

About two days after Ferreira booked his flights, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus’ spread a pandemic. And there was news that three Transportation Security Administration officers at a California airport had tested positive for COVID-19.

“I noticed that it’s starting to get a little bit worse,” said Ferreira, adding he intends to stick to his travel plans. “It’s starting, not to worry me, but it’s keeping me wary.”

For Adriano Mirchou of Orem, Utah, a $250 plane ticket provided an unexpected chance to make an upcoming trip to tour the University of Miami, which recently accepted him into its film school.

Now coronavirus worries have shut down classes at the university, also upending 25-year-old Mirchou’s plans to visit the campus. He still intends to make the Miami trip and spend it hanging out with a friend.

Changing course because of the virus isn’t on his itinerary.

“I don’t think I’d be in harm’s way just by travelling,” Mirchou said. “It could happen to anybody. But at the same time, I don’t think it’ll happen to me.”

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