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‘It’s Surreal Walking Through the Empty Airports’

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‘It’s Surreal Walking Through the Empty Airports’

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The airline industry has said that passenger volume in the United States has dropped about 94 percent in the coronavirus pandemic. The hotel business has taken a similar hit. Yet there are still people who say they must travel for work.

There’s Ben Peterson, a consultant, who flies from his home in Northern California to the defense contractor he works for in Los Angeles County each Sunday evening, flying back every Friday. He can’t work from home, he said, because the information he deals with is too sensitive to be removed from the office.

And people like Mark Kay, the content manager for a small gardening website called Gear Trench. He said he has cut back most, but not all, of his travel, and prefers to drive instead of fly when he can.

Or someone like Hana Pevny, a small-business owner with rental properties in Maine and Colorado who traveled to Aspen in late April to get a property ready for a new tenant.

Millions of people have lost their jobs or been furloughed. Others continue to work, but from home, with no business trips allowed. But there are the few exceptions, people who have no choice but to travel for work — and their experience is drastically different than it was just a few months ago. Airport terminals and hotels with nearly deserted hallways and closed shops can have a slightly apocalyptic feel. Planes take off, for the most part, with just a few passengers spread about the cabin, and in-flight food and beverage service has all but disappeared.

Mr. Peterson said traveling in late March, after so many had stopped, “was almost eerie.”

Now, he said, he doesn’t mind the emptiness and isn’t worried about getting sick. “It’s much better now than last winter when the flights were full during flu season and people were coughing all over the plane,” he said.

Planes are “cleaned all the time,” he said, and have few passengers. The flight he usually takes has the capacity for 140 people but now typically carries only about 10, he said.

Mr. Peterson said he would worry about getting sick if a significant number of fliers began returning to the skies before new virus cases “are minimal or zero.”

According to the Transportation Security Administration, domestic air travel ticked up in early May. The number of passengers screened at T.S.A. checkpoints rose to 191,000 on May 7, up from 155,000 on April 30. But passenger loads overall are still down to a trickle compared with this time last year.

The combination of more fliers and fewer planes has meant some flights are already fuller — a trend some travelers found troubling in the past several days.

Airlines that used to have flights every 60 to 90 minutes between hubs or popular cities are now down to three or four per day, according to Helane Becker, who analyzes the industry for Cowen, the financial services company. The companies are trying to match passenger demand with flight capacity, and it’s cheaper to put more passengers on fewer flights, Ms. Becker said Monday in an email. “They can’t fly 1,500 to 1,800 seats per day in a market where there may be demand for 150 to 180.”

When Mr. Peterson goes to Los Angeles County, he always stays at the same hotel, one he has used since last fall. He gets to stay in the same room for every visit — the hotel manager keeps it unoccupied while he is gone. But much is different: The self-serve breakfast buffet, with its waffle station, oatmeal, fruit and yogurt, is no longer available, replaced with some packaged items like granola bars. And the lounge, with its big-screen TV that used to show football games, is desolate. “I see about half the usual staff I know, and it seems like multiple floors are completely empty,” he said.

Mr. Peterson said he has added a set of health precautions to his travel routine. He wipes down the area around his airplane seat and the frequent touch points on his rental car. He uses his elbow to press elevator buttons. He sprays disinfectant on his suitcase and backpack before he gets into the car for the drive home from the airport.

Mr. Kay, the gardening website content manager, said he traveled from his home in Calgary, Canada, to Victoria in April to check on product prototypes that his company is developing. He wanted to feel the new gardening tools in his hands and test their quality, he said, “before we go out and source thousands of these things.”

He said he felt uncomfortable traveling now “because you have to be cautious all the time,” adding: “It’s concerning — I feel like I can’t touch anything.” He said he had cut back his business travel as much as possible and used his own judgment on whether a trip was necessary and safe.

When he returns home, he leaves his luggage in the garage for two days and showers immediately, throwing his clothes in the washing machine. He keeps his distance from his wife and 10-year-old son for 24 hours.

He said the pandemic has changed his calculus on flying versus driving. He drove three hours to a meeting in Edmonton recently, a trip he used to take by air. “Social distancing may not be possible on an airplane, so I feel driving is safer.”

Ms. Pevny, who lives in Maine, didn’t have the option of driving to Colorado. But because airlines have slashed their offerings, especially to smaller airports, she also couldn’t fly her usual route, from Portland, Maine, via Chicago to Aspen, which takes six hours. Instead, she ended up on a marathon of more than 16 hours, driving from Maine to Boston, then flying to Charlotte, N.C., and then to Denver. She drove the final 200 miles to Aspen.

As a landlord, she needed to travel to Aspen to prepare a property for a new renter to move in — something that’s hard to do from out of town. She said she typically rents the vacation property for a week or a month at a time, but this tenant will be there for six months. “She’s from New York City and will be working remotely,” Ms. Pevny said.

Because airline schedules are so uncertain, she’s not going to buy her return ticket until she is ready to depart.

“It’s surreal walking through the empty airports where the stores are all closed and everyone is in masks,” Ms. Pevny said. The whole experience saddened her.

As for the possibility of contracting the virus on a plane, Ms Pevny said, she didn’t worry. She believes she is more likely to get sick from close contact at a grocery store than from flying across the country. She did delay her trip a few weeks until her parents, both in their 80s, felt it was safe. She said they wanted to see “what businesses were doing to accommodate” travelers and also wanted to make sure she could fly home if one of them fell ill.

Most companies, of course, have been cautious about business travel. Harvey Gluckman, a senior sales executive with a technology services corporation, said he typically flew more than 100,000 miles a year visiting customers but has been grounded since early March. He doesn’t expect to take a business trip until this fall at the earliest, he said.

At some point, “the federal and state governments may say it’s safe to travel, but it’s the company’s chief medical officer and H.R. that are going to decide when it’s OK,” he said. “Nobody wants to make their employees sick.”

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