How Travelers Are Beating Tough Flight Curbs in the Age of Covid

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A medical worker Airport Japan Bloomberg | James Alexander Michie

A medical worker in protective gear collects a nasal swab from an arrival passenger to test for Covid-19 at a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing site inside Narita Airport in Narita, Chiba Prefecture, Japan, on July 19. Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg

Travel curbs and border restrictions are upending lives around the globe, with some people resorting to chartering planes or paying many times the regular ticket price to get back to their jobs and homes.

Eight months into the pandemic, the push to normalize is seeing some try to travel internationally again, whether for a long-delayed but essential business trip or to return to where they live. Yet with global coronavirus cases surpassing 18 million and rising, airlines are only reluctantly adding flights to their bare-bones schedules, and virus resurgences have some countries imposing new travel rules.

A passenger sits beneath a nearly empty departures board at O’Hare International Airport (ORD) in Chicago, U.S., on June 13. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

The flight paralysis underscores how deep and lasting the pandemic’s damage is proving to be. The number of international flights to the U.S., Australia and Japan has fallen more than 80% from a year ago, while flights to China are down by more than 94%, according to aviation industry database Cirium.

Travelers have to be creative just to get on a plane. Support groups have sprung up on Facebook and WeChat for those who have been stuck thousands of miles from their jobs, homes and families. Unable to get tickets, some are attempting to organize private chartered flights, while travel agents say they’re having to bribe airlines for limited seats. Others are shelling out for business or first-class tickets, only to be turned away for lack of the right documentation.

“So many people with families are separated, it’s so heart-breaking,” said Ariel Lee, a mother in Shanghai who administers a few Wechat groups of 1,650 members in total trying to get into China. “The toughest part is there are no clear guidelines and there’s no end date to this.”

Empty seats on board a British Airways flight Photographer: Laurel Chor/Bloomberg

The hopeful talk of travel corridors and a summer recovery have faded away among airline industry experts, replaced by a consensus that global travel will not effectively re-start before a vaccine is found.

“We are not going to see a material recovery for international travel in the near future,” said Steven Kwok, associate partner of OC&C Strategy Consultants Ltd. Even after a vaccine is available, many will remain uncomfortable with long-haul flights, he said.

“The pandemic also brings about a consequential impact beyond the virus outbreak –- it is causing a slowdown in the global economy, which will hurt travel appetite for a longer term,” said Kwok.

Higher Prices

Chris Wells had been stuck in his hometown in Texas for half a year, eagerly looking to return to Guangzhou, a city in southern China where he’s been living and working for more than a decade. International travel to China has been severely limited by the government to stem imported infections, and any seats on flights are snatched up almost instantly.

Wells, 41, a manager in an international sourcing company, searched and searched for a ticket. The only one he could find: an $8,800 one-way, first-class flight from Chicago to Shanghai, via Zurich.

“It was the only seat available,” he said. “I’d normally never pay that much for a ticket, but I was desperate to get back so I grabbed the seat when I found it.”

Cherry Lin, a Shanghai-based travel agent, said her company is having to pay kickbacks to airlines — more than 10,000 yuan ($1,438) per seat — to get tickets on popular routes like those departing from the U.S. and U.K. that they can then sell to customers.

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Source: Bloomberg News

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