“Since the onset of this crisis, U.S. airlines have relied on science, research and data to help guide decisions as they continuously reevaluate and update their processes and procedures,” a spokesperson for the trade organization Airlines for America, which represents the likes of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines, told Insider.
“Multiple scientific studies confirm that the layers of protection significantly reduce risk, and research continues to demonstrate that the risk of transmission onboard aircraft is very low,” the organization said.
Delta is currently the last airline to still block middle seats but will stop doing so on May 1, the longest run of any US airline to block seats. The CDC’s study hasn’t deterred the airline either, which held firm on the policy shift when asked by CNBC on Thursday.
“Our experts tell us that with vaccination rates where they’re at and demand being as strong as it is it’s absolutely safe to sit in that middle seat,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian said.
Airlines and at least one aviation expert agree that the CDC study is flawed in multiple aspects including that it was performed in 2017 using maskless mannequins – while wearing masks on an airplane is now mandated by federal law – and wasn’t conducted on an actual airplane, unlike more recent studies.
But science aside, blocking middle seats served a valuable purpose during the pandemic: inspiring peace of mind among travelers returning to flying after months of being grounded.
My experience with blocked middle seats
I’m a life-long flyer and returning to the skies in June 2020 was not an easy decision. Like many, I’d feared catching the novel coronavirus and had a brief moment of panic when I boarded my first flight amid the pandemic.
I was lucky to be flying Delta, however, as I’m sure my panic would have been worsened if I was on a packed plane.
I do realize that airlines need to be profitable in order for me to keep enjoying their services. Delta, after all, estimated that it lost up to $150 million in potential revenue from blocking seats in March.
But, not all of the country is vaccinated and even those that are still might not feel comfortable with being packed into a plane.
My hope is that airlines giving up on seat-block will double down on other efforts to drive home the fact that flying is safe. I’ve seen this on airlines like Delta and United but some have a way to come in their efforts.
The findings of studies promoting air travel as safe are predicated on airlines following their recommended precautions. But even the industry-funded study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health specifically gives recommendations that some airlines aren’t following or enforcing.
CEO Ed Bastian appeared on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street” Thursday morning and criticized the report’s shortcoming when asked, saying: “Our experts tell us that with vaccination rates where they’re at and demand being as strong as it is it’s absolutely safe to sit in that middle seat.”
Guiding Delta’s decision, according to Bastian, are experts from the Mayo Clinic, Emory University, and Delta Chief Health Officer Dr. Henry Ting, formerly of the Mayo Clinic. The airline deferred to trade organization Airlines for America when asked for comment on the CDC report.
“Since the onset of this crisis, US airlines have relied on science, research, and data to help guide decisions as they continuously reevaluate and update their processes and procedures,” a spokesperson for the organization said in a statement to Insider. “Multiple scientific studies confirm that the layers of protection significantly reduce risk, and research continues to demonstrate that the risk of transmission onboard aircraft is very low. “
Henry Harteveldt, an industry analyst and cofounder of Atmosphere Research Group, told Insider that the CDC study and its release were flawed for multiple reasons, chiefly because it doesn’t take into account the new realities of travel. Researchers ran the trials in 2017 using maskless mannequins while masks are now mandatory in airplanes under federal law.
Harteveldt and airlines instead point to more recent studies, including one by the US Department of Defense where masked mannequins were tested onboard a United Airlines wide-body aircraft. Airlines similarly tout a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study that declares the risk of air travel to be “below that of other routine activities during the pandemic, such as grocery shopping or eating out” when precautions are taken.
Both support the claims by airlines that flying is safe thanks to measures like mask-wearing and the use of high-efficiency particulate air filters, or HEPA filters, regardless of whether seats are blocked. Harteveldt noted, however, that the Harvard study was funded by the airline industry while the DOD study was not.
Delta was an early and ardent adopter of the seat-blocking policy and kept seats blocked the longest of any major US airline, most of which started filling planes in late 2020. The policy cost Delta up to $150 million in potential revenue in March but even still, the month was successful as the airline saw positive daily cash flow thanks to a surge in travelers.
“Thanks to the incredible efforts of our people, we achieved positive daily cash generation in the month of March, a remarkable accomplishment considering our middle seat block and the low level of demand for business and international travel,” Bastian said in an earnings statement, adding that he expects the airline to be profitable once more in September.
All major US airlines, confident in measures like mask-wearing and the use of high-efficiency particular air filters, or HEPA filters, are moving away from the practice with no signs of reverting back to it while others never adopted it and are not likely to. Delta Air Lines is the last hold out with its policy slated to end on May 1.
But the reasoning goes well beyond the desire of airlines to turn a profit by filling planes.
“Multiple scientific studies confirm that the layers of protection significantly reduce risk, and research continues to demonstrate that the risk of transmission onboard aircraft is very low,” Airlines for America, the trade organization representing many of the country’s major airlines including Delta, American Airlines, and United Airlines, said in a statement to Insider.
Airlines are already walking a fine line to prevent an onboard outbreak while trying to get flyers to come back. If an outbreak were to occur, the industry could go right back to where it was in March 2020 with mass cancellations and billions of dollars being lost.
Masks have been required onboard commercial airline flights for almost a year now and any major outbreak would have been well noted and investigated. The 2017 study also doesn’t take into account the measures being taken by airlines, one industry expert says.
“This is months-old data that overlooks a lot of changes in the real world policies and practices that the air transport industry has implemented since the study was first conducted,” Henry Harteveldt, industry analyst and co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group, said of the just-released CDC report. Researchers ran the tests in a laboratory setting using mannequins that were not wearing face masks.
Harteveldt noted that each stud likely isn’t perfect, as the Harvard study was industry-funded. And while the DOD study is more dependable, it only used wide-body aircraft for its testing, a factor that Harteveldt says isn’t a major limiting issue considering the filtration systems are comparable on narrow-body aircraft.
Reverting back to the days of blocking middle seats would also wreak havoc on airlines that have begun selling tickets on planes to capacity for the summer.
“If you were to tell a passenger now, ‘oh, we have to rebook your vacation because we’re blocking middle seats,’ I think you’d have a lot of upset travelers,” Harteveldt said, noting airlines would like demand compensation from the government if it became law.
Travelers have indicated time and time again that they’re willing to fly on any airline if the price is right, regardless of the seat block. American Airlines and United Airlines had no trouble filling some flights in the first summer of the pandemic when flights were sold to capacity, as Insider found on multiple flights in June 2020.
“The consumers went where they could get the flights and fares that they could afford,” Harteveldt said. “And this was before vaccines were available and before wearing a mask was a federal mandate.”
Delta Air Lines is set to end its middle-seat block on May 1, at which point none of the 11 major US airlines will offer the policy. Airlines are also not alone as Amtrak and Megabus have also announced definitive ends to their seat blocking policies, as well.
Most perceptions of private aviation include chartering an expensive plane and spending thousands of dollars for just an hour of flight time. But a growing market in aviation is for personal private jets, planes that are small and simple enough that they can be flown by one person while being cheaper to operate than traditional jet aircraft.
One of the newest personal private jets on the market is the Cirrus Vision Jet. Having debuted in 2016, the aircraft comes in at a mere 30.7 feet long and 5.1 feet wide, making it one of the world’s smallest and cheapest private jets.
The base model of a first-generation Vision Jet costs just under $2 million with direct operating costs under $1,000 an hour. And that includes fuel and maintenance costs, according to Nassau Flyers, a Vision Jet operator based on Long Island, New York.
The entry-level aircraft is a jack-of-all-trades. The aerial equivalent of a luxury SUV, it’s ideal for loading up the family and flying down to Florida for the weekend, while a road warrior can use it to reach remote destinations and be home before the end of business.
I went for a ride in and saw why it’s the perfect plane for the post-pandemic world.
Nassau Flyers, a high-end flight school at Long Island’s Republic Airport, operates a Cirrus Vision Jet for a local businessman.
It’s the flagship of the flight school, which prides itself on an all-Cirrus fleet on training aircraft for its clients as a Cirrus Training Center. Cirrus’ propeller aircraft are widely considered to be among Cadillacs of piston aircraft for their speed, comfort, and safety.
The tiny jet just barely stands out amid the school’s fleet of Cirrus aircraft, and that’s part of its appeal. The Vision Jet doesn’t require a large hangar to be stored in and can easily fit in the individual hangars used by Cessnas, Pipers, and other small aircraft.
Cirrus built the Vision Jet as the next step up for flyers of its piston aircraft. There are numerous similarities between the two types, including the cockpit configuration and the aircraft’s wings.
Most pilots at Nassau Flyers who set their sights on the Vision Jet often start off on the Cirrus training aircraft before making their way to the jet. The owner of this one uses it for business, visiting multiple remote cities in a single day.
The Vision Jet is unique since it’s a single-engine aircraft. Most jet aircraft have two engines, one on each side, but the Vision Jet only has one engine, on top of the fuselage, which lowers operating and maintenance costs.
Our pilot for the day, Sean, normally files the jet by himself, as the owner is still in training.
The owner previously used an SR-20 series aircraft to fly around the region for business but was able to expand his business up and down the Eastern Seaboard and beyond once he acquired the Vision Jet.
In addition to the pilot, the jet seats three people in this configuration, with two passenger seats in the back and one in the cockpit next to the pilot. Three more seats can be added in the back, bringing the total to six (not including the pilot).
With only two seats in the back, there’s plenty of legroom and room for luggage, golf clubs, or a pair of skies to fit in the cabin. This is with the copilot’s seat all the way back.
There’s even enough room for a makeshift bed on longer trips.
The cabin is 4.1 feet tall so there’s not much room to stand up but the curvature of the fuselage makes the cabin feel larger when sitting as a passenger.
An exterior-accessible storage compartment can also be found in the back of the aircraft.
A carry-on bag can fit back here or a few smaller bags.
Powering the aircraft is a Williams International FJ33-5A engine, offering 1,846 pounds of thrust. It’s not a lot compared to an airliner but will get the jet to a top speed of around 300 knots with a range of about 800 miles.
Unlike traditional two-engine jet aircraft, pilots flying the vision jet need only a private pilot’s license and an add-on instrument rating. To fly a twin-engine aircraft, a multi-engine rating would be required.
Once pilots earn their private pilot license and instrument add-on rating, training on the jet is quick and can be done at one of Cirrus’ facilities, where it’s about a two-and-a-half-week process to get a type rating. Some choose to build more hours in the piston before moving to the Vision Jet.
And like all Cirrus aircraft, the Vision Jet is equipped with a parachute to be deployed in case of an engine failure or other extreme circumstances where the aircraft cannot land safely. The chute is in the nose and totals the plane when deployed.
Newer models also offer a “Safe Return” add-on wherein the autopilot will land the plane if the pilot is unable.
I hoped in the copilot seat for the short hop north since the best views are from the front. There are two seats in the cockpit, but the plane needs only one pilot, so anybody can sit up there.
Our initial flight plan was to go from Long Island to Martha’s Vineyard, but shortly before the flight our pilot noticed that there was bad weather and we changed our destination to Glens Falls, New York, near Lake George, at the last minute.
The speed at which we were able to change our entire plan for the day without delay was a testament to how versatile the aircraft is. With the possibility of a second wave to this pandemic, some states may go back into lockdown and travel plans may need to change at a moment’s notice.
Sean would be doing all the work this flight including flying and talking to air-traffic control. The plane is designed with this kind of flying in mind, evident in the fact that starting the engine on this $2 million plane is as easy as starting a car, with just the press of a button.
Nearly everything in the cockpit is controlled by touchscreen, and all checklists, charts, and airplane systems can be displayed on the two high-definition screens. There’s also a full autopilot system with everything except auto-throttle, which is available on newer Vision Jets.
Unlike commercial airliners, the overhead is rarely used on the Vision Jet.
The jet is flown using a side stick, a popular Cirrus feature. Buttons on the stick can disengage the autopilot, control the trim, and activate the radio when it’s time to talk to air-traffic control.
It took less than five minutes from hoping in the plane to taxing out to the runway.
It was a rainy day on Long Island, so we filed an instrument flight plan to head north. The Vision Jet doesn’t have windshield wipers but any rain quickly flew off as we accelerated forward.
Take-off speed was 100 knots, and then we climbed at a rate of 1,500 feet per minute. It wasn’t before long that we were above the clouds on our way to 19,000.
The flight time to Glens Falls was only 45 minutes. By car it would take four hours.
The display screens showed our elapsed flying time, estimated time to the destination, and how much fuel we were burning per hour. For this flight, it was 90 gallons an hour with the Vision Jet holding just under 300 gallons.
As the Vision Jet climbed into the upper altitudes, we encountered some icing on the wings but the aircraft’s boot system quickly got rid of it.
The skies were empty for our flight, a casualty of the coronavirus pandemic, so we were given clearance to head straight to Glens Falls. After 20 minutes in cruise, it was already time to descend.
There’s Lake George just off of the wing.
Glens Falls doesn’t see commercial service, so the only option for a business traveler heading there would be to drive or take an Amtrak train. The closest commercial airports were an hour away in Albany, New York, or Rutland, Vermont.
Commercial airports account for only a fraction of the total number of public airports in the US. According to Don Vogel, the owner of Nassau Flyers, there are about 500 commercial airports compared to 5,000 public-use airports, and all the Vision Jet needs is jet fuel and a few thousand feet of runway.
The low speeds that the Vision Jet is capable of meant we could make a close-in approach, about two miles from the runway. Whenever Sean turned the plane, a blue curved line would show the new direction of flight.
And just like that, 45 minutes after we left Long Island we were a world away. Case in point, Upstate New York had begun opening weeks prior while Long Island was only a week into the first phase.
Another perk of flying private is getting to use the private terminals, which are normally empty and don’t require going through security checkpoints.
I sat in the back for the next flight, a quick 25-minute hop to Worcester, Massachusetts. Flying commercial between these two cities is impossible.
The seats are narrow but comfortable leather nonetheless. There were all the creature comforts including USB charging ports.
110v AC power outlets.
Personal reading lights and air-conditioning.
There was even a drop-down monitor that a laptop could be connected to, or even loaded up with Netflix.
WiFi wasn’t installed on this plane but newer models can have it. SiriusXM Satellite Radio is also a popular add-on.
We quickly departed Glens Falls for Worcester without delay or need to refuel. The three-hour car journey between the two cities was reduced to 25 minutes of flying at 15,000 feet.
Though there was no flight attendant to serve snacks, there was plenty of legroom on the flight and the cabin is automatically pressurized. At the aircraft’s top altitude of 28,000 feet, the cabin altitude is 8,000 feet.
The windows on the Vision Jet are also oversized, allowing for great views from the back of the plane.
They don’t have shades but are UV-tinted, a feature found on newer aircraft like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
Worcester was below the clouds, so an instrument approach would be required to access the airport. For the Vision Jet, it was nothing the autopilot couldn’t handle.
As the autopilot brought us down to the minimum altitude for the approach, the outline of the runway was shown on the primary display so that Sean could hand-fly if needed.
At 600 feet, the runway came into view and it was smooth sailing all the way down.
After a smooth landing in Worcester, we headed back to Long Island. Visiting those three cities in one day would’ve meant at least 10 hours of driving and we landed back in New York before lunchtime.
“It’s really the availability of flight and the availability to go places, like the experience that we had today,” Vogel, a licensed pilot, told Business Insider referring to the benefits of having a Vision Jet and flying it yourself.
“The big issue with the pandemic and with the airlines is that they have cut back,” Vogel continued. “If you’re going to Madison, Wisconsin, or someplace … Morgantown, West Virginia, or even down to Knoxville, those flights are disappearing.”
Airlines are reducing frequencies as they can’t fill the same number of flights they once could.
“We definitely see an opportunity that I think more and more people are going to be looking at personal transportation,” Matt Bergwall, Cirrus’ director of the Vision Jet product line, told Business Insider.
“We are already seeing a little bit of a demand for people who are just calling us up and saying, ‘Hey, I don’t want to actually learn how to fly. I see that you have this airplane. Tell me a little bit more,'” Bergwall said.
With the pandemic creating uncertainty over travel plans, Cirrus is hoping that more people will want to take control of their travel by either getting pilot licenses or purchasing planes to be flown by reliable operators like Nassau Flyers.
Airlines are adjusting their schedules to the point where convenience is lost, especially when flying to remote destinations outside major cities. And while the hassles of flying on a commercial airline previously only included going through security and potential delays and cancellations, the concerns of health and safety now have to be considered.
As a true entry-level jet, it’s possible for a new pilot to be flying the Vision Jet with less than 100 hours of experience, though most prefer to build more hours on piston aircraft before doing so.
For business travelers who can’t afford to fly extensively on traditional executive aircraft, the Vision Jet is a more cost-effective alternative and can accomplish most of the same missions, even if it takes a little more time on longer hops.