Some airline passengers are taking advantage of cheap flights during the coronavirus outbreak to earn air miles and improve their loyalty programme status, according to an industry insider.
Airlines have slashed prices to account for a fall in demand over the past few weeks, as most of the US faces stay-at-home orders. Some airfares dropped by as much as 70 percent in the first weeks of March, and the value of total tickets sold by booking agents is down by around 80 percent.
Health officials have advised against all but essential travel to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but some passengers are using those cheap fares to bump up their frequent flyer status, according to a flight attendant with a major US airline.
“Most airlines have different levels [for frequent flyers] which give you different perks. Some people are trying to up their level. They are doing turnarounds,” the attendant said, referring to the practice of flying to a destination only to return immediately on the same flight.
The attendant, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorised to speak to the media, said that most planes are flying at a vastly reduced capacity — some with only a handful of passengers aboard. they added that it was clear not everyone was following the official advice to only travel for essential purposes.
“Many people have observed the essential travel rule, but there are careless people out there buying the cheap tickets. One person just wanted their kid to have their first flight,” they said.
“The airlines are offering $49 tickets in some places. Some people are just going on vacation.”
Ben Mutzabaugh, senior aviation editor at The Points Guy, an outlet that advises consumers on how to maximise airline points and miles, has called on enthusiasts to stay home.
“I have not heard of anyone specifically doing that since the government issued new guidance on travel here in the US. But we certainly are advising against that,” he said.
"This is a serious medical situation and our advice mirrors what government health officials are saying. Everyone should stay at home right now.”
American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said earlier this week that “those flying today are doing so for important reasons.”
“They're medical professionals getting to where they're most needed, family members getting to their loved ones or where they feel most safe, elected officials getting to their constituents and back to govern,” he said.
Donald Trump on Wednesday raised the prospect of halting domestic flights in order to slow the spread of the virus.
“We’re certainly looking at it, but once you do that you really are clamping down on an industry that is desperately needed,” Mr Trump said in response to a question about restricting domestic air travel.
As part of the US senate’s $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package, the airline industry will receive some $50bn in bailout funds. Half of that money will be given in direct grants in return for airlines agreeing to not put employees on involuntary furloughs, the rest will be available for loan guarantees.
A spokesperson for American Airlines said the company encourages all of its customers to follow guidelines laid out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
That CDC website says the public body "does not generally issue advisories or restrictions for travel within the United States. However, cases of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) have been reported in all states, and some areas are experiencing community spread of the disease."
"Crowded travel settings, like airports, may increase chances of getting COVID-19, if there are other travellers with coronavirus infection," it adds.
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