For many months now, my wife and I have had seats on flight to Italy booked for October.
It was meant to be a delayed 20-year wedding anniversary trip, for which we gathered up some frequent flier miles back before we decided to forgo credit cards.
Thanks to covid-19, our week in Italy isn't happening.
Given the pandemic conditions around the world, even if I were allowed to fly to Italy, I'm unconvinced I want to go through the airport and airline experience while a sometimes deadly virus is busily seeking out host bodies.
I'm not alone. The Transportation Security Administration reported it screened 75 percent fewer passengers in July than it did in the same month a year ago. In its recent stock filings, United Airlines said it expects "demand to remain suppressed and plateau at levels of around 50%, relative to 2019 levels, until a widely accepted treatment and/vaccine for covid-19 is widely available."
The Associated Press reported in August that global air travel is down more than 85 percent from a year ago.
I noticed Thursday a report that the Vancouver International Airport had canceled its capital expansion plans, including $525 million in work already under way, according to the Vancouver Sun. Predicting the future needs of airlines and passengers is apparently too difficult in a covid-19 world.
Out at Northwest Arkansas National Airport, the same kinds of reflections on covid-19's impact are going on, particularly when it comes to the world of business travel. The 22-year-old XNA -- the federal designation for the airport many people use in referring to it -- wouldn't likely exist absent the high volume of business travelers generated by Walmart, Tyson and other corporations headquartered in our neck of the woods.
Business travel is big airline business. Companies, as a result of covid-19, have shifted a lot of their face-to-face meetings to online teleconferencing platforms like Zoom. I wonder whether and to what extent, during this pandemic, businesses might just realize they can realign their way of doing business to eliminate a lot of costly business travel.
Aaron Burkes, the chief operating officer at XNA, is a bit more optimistic. Recovery, he predicts, will be slow, but particularly in the Northwest Arkansas market, it's unlikely to disappear or shrink to small numbers. Maybe in other markets, but not here, where many are traveling to Walmart for a chance to establish or increase their sales through the world's largest retailer.
"They're going to take face to face meetings if they can possibly get one," Burkes said.
XNA continues its design work for expanding, including the addition of a western concourse for loading passengers on planes. Like other airports, it's not necessarily in a hurry to commit to new projects, but it wants to be ready for them once "normal" returns.
Will the covid-19 experience influence design? Burkes says yes. For example, the airport is looking at building open-air courtyards along that new concourse.
Traffic at XNA grew around 17 percent in 2019 and was on track for that level of growth this year before covid-19 came along. Burkes believes XNA will do just fine in the long run. It continues to grow its market share among leisure passengers, he said.
Meanwhile, airport officials will just wait out the global travel slowdown while simultaneously continuing airport changes to not only make sure everyone ready to fly can do it safely, but they can feel that way, too. The safer everyone feels, the sooner they'll be ready to fly, Burkes theorizes.
As with so much in life these days, that vaccine can't come soon enough.
Greg Harton is editorial page editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Contact him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWAGreg.