Will COVID-19 reduce air travel in the long term?

Portions of this blog post are based on preliminary responses to our survey. These responses over-represent highly educated and high income individuals, white and Asian respondents, and people who work from home or don’t commute by car. These results are identified by the term “convenience sample.” All other results come from our nationally representative sample.

How will air travel change after the pandemic?

Air travel has declined sharply since the beginning of COVID-19, with US air passenger
numbers down 95% from April 2019 to April 2020. We asked our survey respondents, many of whom were previously frequent air travelers, how much they expected to fly after the pandemic had ended. While the majority of flyers expected their use of air travel to remain about the same after the pandemic, 35% of those who reported personal air travel at least once a year (n=1236), and 50% of those who reported business air travel at least once a year (n=745), expected to reduce their air travel once the pandemic subsides. These expectations indicate that the decrease in flying will be “sticky,” or likely to persist after the pandemic.

The figure below details how both personal and business travelers expect their airline travel to change after the pandemic. The sizes of the bars represent the percentage of respondents in each category, and the thickness of the lines indicates how many respondents in a particular category in one time period were in a corresponding category in the next time period. The color of the lines corresponds to the answers in the pre-pandemic time period.

We also asked respondents why they expected their flying after the pandemic to change. This question revealed some important differences between those who fly for business reasons and those who fly for personal reasons. Some business travelers anticipating a reduction in air travel (n=390) indicated that their companies had committed to reduce air travel. Depending on whether this change was in response to the virus or environmental concerns predating COVID-19, it may or may not persist past the pandemic.

Another major reason for expected decreases in business travel was the realization by employees and companies that meetings could be conducted remotely. However, this was not a motivator for decreased personal travel, as only 10% of respondents who expected a change in air travel for personal reasons (n=520) indicated that technology allowed them to engage with long-distance connections.

Many personal travelers predicted decreased flying because of concerns about sharing a close space with strangers (as did about a quarter of business flyers). Since health concerns are likely to pass as the virus subsides, the expected changes in personal travel that were reported on this survey may be less likely to persist in the long term than changes in business travel.

The small number of travelers who expected an increase in air travel after the pandemic
frequently cited the need to take business trips canceled due to the pandemic or the desire to travel after being stuck at home. Both of these trends are likely to be temporary.

What will the effects of reduced airplane travel be?

If this downward trend in air travel persists beyond the pandemic, even in limited form, the airline industry will sustain significant economic damage. Losses for the industry are expected to be tens of millions of dollars for 2020 alone, as airplanes are being grounded and airline employees are being laid off at staggering rates.

However, decreased flying is likely to have a positive effect on the environment. Emissions from airplanes have long been identified as major contributors to global warming, and it has been suggested that the COVID-19 pandemic could serve as a “reset,” giving airlines the opportunity to rebuild their operations more sustainably in a post-COVID world. While the airline industry is unlikely to completely collapse, the interaction of environmental concerns, business interests, and decreased demand for flights make its future uncertain.

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