Listen to what experts have to say about traveling during the coronavirus outbreak
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Host Brian Kelly on “Talking Points” finds out the implications of the Wuhan coronavirus for health and travel.
First, Dr. Hanh Le, the head of Healthline Media Medical Affairs, discusses the origins and concerns around the rapid and global spread of the virus, and how the medical world has responded to this global emergency. She shares tips you can use today to protect yourself, like how to keep your airplane seat clean and explains why health officials, like herself, are skeptical of surgical mask efficacy.
Dr. Le is confident that there has been better shared communication during this outbreak, however, she expressed her concern around the lack of data around the true number of infections and the willingness to transport healthcare resources between borders.
“I know that there’s a lot of scare in terms of wanting to close down our borders, and wanting to really cloister ourselves,” she says. “But in actuality, it’s that open willingness to share information, and to help and share supplies to contain those infections, that will actually help in the long run, in terms of tamping out the outbreak.”
After the break, Ben Mutzabaugh, TPG’s senior aviation editor, shares his insights into airline suspensions, cancellation waivers and what to do if you’re planning to fly in the next eight weeks. Mutzabaugh also offers his opinion on whether the airline cancelations could pose economic threats to low-cost carriers if these cancellations continue.
“No airline is going to make more money because of this, and we are probably going to see a relatively long tail for demand to rebound once coronavirus ends,” he says.
As the airlines figure out what to do with their idled wide-body jets, Mutzabaugh says passengers could be pleasantly surprised to fly on 777s and A350s on unexpected domestic routes.
“You’re not going to see them all parked in the desert somewhere, but how the airlines choose to incorporate these into their existing schedules on, for a scheduling perspective, what’s short notice, will be fascinating to watch,” he says.
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Featured Photo by Paul Yeung/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Brian Kelly: Welcome to this episode of “Talking Points.” I’m your host, Brian Kelly, and today we are talking about a serious issue that we’ve all seen in the news. The Wuhan coronavirus has wreaked havoc on travel across the globe, and it is an impending healthcare crisis. To cut through all of the information, we have two awesome guests today. We’ve got Dr. Le from Healthline Media. Healthline is a sister site of The Points Guy under our parent company, Red Ventures, and they seek to give the best information to consumers on their health, and doing it in an empathetic and informative way. So, we are so fortunate to have her, and we’ll end the episode with our very own Ben Mutzabaugh, who is our senior aviation editor at The Points Guy. We’re going to talk about how this directly impacts travelers and the travel industry. More on the Wuhan coronavirus, right after this.
Brian Kelly: Today we are going to talk all things Wuhan coronavirus with our very own Dr. Hanh Le, who’s the senior director of medical affairs at our sister site, Healthline. Dr. Le, thank you so much for joining us today.
Dr. Hanh Le: Oh, I’m so happy to be here.
Brian Kelly:A lot of things have been happening day by day. We’re recording this episode on Monday, February 3rd. High-level, what’s going on with the coronavirus?
Dr. Hanh Le: So at the high level, the coronavirus seems to still be spreading. We’re still hearing of increased cases of new infections and additional deaths. Right now I think we’re at around 361 deaths. The vast majority of the deaths are occurring in China, and the vast majority of the cases are occurring in China. But I think, over the weekend, the news was that the first death outside of China has occurred, and it was in a 44-year-old Filipino man, after he traveled to Wuhan.
Brian Kelly: Yeah. I heard that news, and I was kind of shocked. Because it was my understanding that younger, healthy people have nothing to worry about. And…
Dr. Hanh Le: Yup.
Brian Kelly:… we clearly don’t know the medical history of this 44-year-old, but should people be really concerned by that?
Dr. Hanh Le: At this point, you’re exactly right. We don’t know what this man’s medical history is. It is surprising, because (a) 44-year-old is not considered an older person, and we had up until this point been hearing that only the people who are older, or who have compromised to their immune system, or any kind of preexisting medical condition, or respiratory condition, were really at risk of increased mortality. So, definitely we are concerned about that. But at this point, we don’t know enough, and the worst thing we could do is to overly panic when not enough information is known, and to jump to any false conclusions. I think the main thing to really keep in mind is we still need to find out a lot more information.
Brian Kelly: Can you describe a little bit … what are some of the symptoms that they start with and then progress into?
Dr. Hanh Le: It actually is a lot like the flu. In fact, many of the cases that have been documented came with folks who said that they had very, very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. The ones that we are hearing about, the ones that make the news, are the ones that are the most severe, where they’re presenting with respiratory distress. So you have the flu, but on top of that, you’re getting severe cough, high fever and difficulty breathing, (to) the point where people are having difficulties with shortness of breath requiring respiratory support, either with a ventilator or intubation. And so, those are the ones that are really severe, that require hospitalization. But in a lot of the cases, including the ones that we’ve seen in the U.S., people who have been documented with the novel coronavirus are well enough to actually stay at home, as long as they just remain quarantined at home, and that they’re not going around potentially transmitting it to other people.
Brian Kelly: What would you say to someone who said, “OK. The world’s freaking out about this, but the regular flu is way more deadly. Why do we care about this so much?”
Dr. Hanh Le: Well, it definitely is the case that we’re scared about this because we have a situation, and we’ve been hearing about it a lot more in the last couple of decades, that there are these new flus or viruses and bacterias that are making the jump between animals to humans. And it’s frightening to us because there’s a sense of vulnerability, that we don’t know when it’s going to happen, how it’s going to happen, or how quickly the spread can happen before we can contain it. But in actuality, you’re exactly right. The percentage of people who get the normal seasonal influenza is much higher, and the mortality rates for those are still quite high. But that’s where medical information and accurate medical education is really pivotal. We at Healthline Media spend a lot of time really trying to do the best we can to make sure that we arm all of our readers with the best information, so that they really can understand what their true risks are, and not be too easily led into this sense of panic because of misinformation.
Brian Kelly: Yeah, I think the misinformation is a big thing, especially in this day of social media. I know I got multiple people sending me the picture of the grotesque bat in a bowl, claiming that the coronavirus came from people eating burnt bats in bowls in China. Is there any sense of truth to that, and did it definitely come from this animal market, as many people are talking about?
Dr. Hanh Le: Yes and no. So, yes, there is evidence at this point that suggests that the coronavirus, the cause of this current spread, was from the wet market, but it wasn’t necessarily from eating the foods, per se. A lot of it is actually from close contact. Close contact is defined as a six-foot proximity to either an infected animal or an infected person. I think the scare has now come because, where it originally came from an animal — in close proximity with an animal, now people who are in close contact with others who have had the virus, or who have the illness of the coronavirus, can potentially get sick as well. So that’s the real concern, is that we’re seeing the human-to-human transmission. We’ve seen the cases in California, in Chicago, where a recent traveler from Wuhan came back and unwittingly transmitted it to a family member because of the close contact.
Brian Kelly: And this is scary, because unlike Ebola, which required bodily fluid, pretty intense contact, this seems to be passing person-to-person pretty easily. Is that why most officials are really concerned?
Dr. Hanh Le: Yes. So, there are certain ways that you can catch an illness. You know, sometimes it really requires very, very close contact, intimate contact. But when it comes to airborne illnesses like the coronavirus or the influenza, it can travel in respiratory droplets, and with that, anyone can transmit it, if they’re infected with the virus, via talking, coughing or sneezing in close proximity to other people. Which is why we always reinforce, in all of our education in our content on Healthline Media, that the best thing is to practice safe precautions. If you feel sick, stay at home. Don’t go to work. Don’t travel through mass transit. If you are going to cough, sneeze or be close to people, be very mindful and respectful. Don’t cough out in the open. Cover your mouth with your elbow, not in your hand or your shoulder. Cover your mouth with a tissue, if possible, and throw that away immediately. Don’t let it just sit around infecting surfaces, which other people can touch and then transmit to themselves. So, these are the precautions that we always try to reinforce with folks, to help decrease any potential cause of transmission from person to person.
Brian Kelly: Let’s talk about airplanes. So, listeners of this podcast, many of them are probably on a plane right now listening to this. What do you recommend in terms of wiping down your seat area? Does it make sense? I know a lot of people are wearing the medical masks, that people are saying are pointless for receiving viruses in the air. How do we protect ourselves on airplanes and in airports?
Dr. Hanh Le: It makes a lot of sense to feel particularly vulnerable when you travel, because you’re exposed to a lot of travelers from lots of different areas, and you’re in an enclosed environment. With airplanes, it is particularly good to try to clean your area as much as possible. It’s wise to travel with antibacterial wipes and antibacterial gel, so that you can clean your area, making sure that the antibacterial gel has at least a 60% alcohol rate, if possible. And make sure that you clean off your tray table, and avoid putting things in the backseat pocket, because that’s really just a nice medium for bacteria.
Dr. Hanh Le: One of the things that I find very interesting is that when you’re on a plane, there’s this belief that you’re really at risk, and there’s nothing you can do about getting sick. Actually, you can really help yourself by just making sure that your seat is well-ventilated by using the air vent that’s right above your seat. A lot of folks recommend that if you turn on the air vent and position it so that it forms a force field, effectively, in front of your head, that you can actually blow a lot of the viruses and bacteria away. It’s not going to be 100 proof, but it’ll help, in terms of making sure that your area is well-ventilated.
Brian Kelly: Oh, so it does actually work?
Dr. Hanh Le: I think… Well, you know. Everything that you can do to help yourself, protect yourself, it’s a good idea. You know, we always say when we have situations like this to stay in a well-ventilated area, and you can’t always do that when you’re traveling, because you’re on a plane.
Brian Kelly: Mm-hmm. Right, and it’s recycled. Yeah.
Dr. Hanh Le: You know, you’re going to have recirculated… Exactly. But what you can do is just make sure that you’ve got some well-ventilated, well-circulated air around you, if possible. You can test yourself by putting your hands on your lap and making sure that the air is hitting you on the tops of your hands. That’s when you know that the air is really blowing right in front of your face.
Brian Kelly: Interesting. I did not realize that. Now, on to the topic of face masks. Most of the surgical face masks that people are wearing, I’ve heard, do little to protect in-borne viruses. It’s all about not infecting others. Is that true? Or as long as you squeeze it around your nose, do these masks do anything?
Dr. Hanh Le: Well, first and foremost, the CDC does not currently recommend traveling with face masks, because, right… At this point, it’s not known whether the face masks will help at all, or which types of face masks will help. Not all face masks are created equally. You know, a lot of the commercially-available ones don’t have the filtration that will help protect you from the viruses.
Dr. Hanh Le: But you’re right. It’s also the way we use the face mask. I often see it, particularly when I’m traveling in the subway systems. When people wear masks, that they wear it all too loosely, and they think they’ve got it on well and they’re protecting themselves, but there’s a lot of hollow space and open ventilation on the sides. And so, it really is effectively doing nothing. The other mistake that people make is they wear the same one all the time, for long periods of time. So whatever contamination is on the mask, it’s just retained with them, and they don’t throw it away. These face masks are supposed to be single-use face masks. You’re not supposed to just carry them forever, but a lot of folks do that, and then they touch them and they touch other surfaces, and they put them back on their face, thereby rendering the whole mask kind of pointless.
Dr. Hanh Le: At this point, the best thing is really to perform good hand washing. Wash your hands at least 20 seconds with soap and water, and try to avoid touching your face, particularly eyes, nose and mouth, after you’ve touched other surfaces when you’re in public areas, like on a plane or on a subway or other mass transit.
Brian Kelly: That’s really good advice. But if someone out there wants to get the doctor-approved mask that’s going to keep out viruses, is there, like, a professional mask that you would recommend, if people want to invest in it, in a worst-case scenario? You know, to have? I sometimes think, “Let me just invest in one, just so I have it in case.” Because, you know, the minute you need it, they’re going to be sold out. Is there anything you’d recommend?
Dr. Hanh Le: I don’t. I think here in California, we had a lot of fires over the last few years, and we had face masks that were meant to really filtrate out the smoke and whatnot. Those are generally better. But at this point, you’re better off working from home if you’re really scared. If you’re really, really worried about it, working from home, if you can. Staying away from large crowds. Staying in a well-ventilated area. And just making sure that you keep to good hygienic practices, so that you can protect yourself. But I would not recommend masks at this point. I don’t think it’s a great investment in your money. Get yourself some antibacterial hand gel. That’s a better investment.
Brian Kelly: Thank you for that advice. I’ve been getting tons of questions from people who have trips to Vietnam, Bangkok, even Hong Kong. And even though those countries are not the source of the outbreak, there’s still a lot of concern about travel to Asia. What would you tell someone that has a trip to Bangkok in two weeks, and who’s really nervous and (asking), “Should I cancel? Should I go”? What would your medical advice be on traveling to Southeast Asia, let’s say?
Dr. Hanh Le: I would definitely say keep informed about what the news is coming out of that area. A lot of the countries in that area were the first countries hit by spread outside of China, so they’ve implemented screening practices, and also have closed down travel between their countries, as well as China. But in terms of transportation between U.S. and Bangkok, or U.S. and other Asian countries, those are still open. However, with increased screening, you’re always going to have travel delays, so keep an eye on that to make sure that there’s not going to be flight cancellations or delays.
Dr. Hanh Le: But ultimately, it’s going to be a matter of whether or not the news comes out, close to your flight and your planned trip, that warrants anything in terms of your change. If it’s something that you really feel apprehensive about… This is what I would always tell my patients… No one can make these decisions for you, other than yourself. If the news makes you scared enough that you would not enjoy your trip, then definitely reconsider it, also keeping in mind that even if you do travel to those areas, with the scare that’s going on right now, many local businesses are also closing down. They’re not as open to tourism as they were before. Unfortunately, it has caused a decline in tourist activity, so you may not be getting the experience that you had originally wanted. So keep those things in mind, too, in terms of what happens when you get to the country.
Brian Kelly: Great advice. And on a final note, so it seems like the world is now responding. We can debate whether it was done quick enough or not. But, do you feel confident that the global response now is going to be able to contain the virus going forward?
Dr. Hanh Le:I am confident that there is much better shared communication during this outbreak than there has been in the past. I think the mobilization, in terms of a coordinated effort, and sharing of information is much better. I am concerned that with all these borders shut down, and with these containment, that there is going to be less willingness to share information in terms of true infection rates, and less willingness to allow for the open transport of healthcare materials, medications and supplies. And whenever there’s problems with medical transport of supplies where areas really need those supplies, that really impedes the ability to contain and fight the infection. So, I know that there’s a lot of scare in terms of wanting to close down our borders, and wanting to really cloister ourselves. But in actuality, it’s that open willingness to share information, and to help and share supplies to contain those infections, that will actually help in the long run, in terms of tamping out the outbreak.
Brian Kelly: Wow. You’ve been incredibly informative. Is there anything else we should know about coronavirus, as it relates to travel, or any parting words?
Dr. Hanh Le: Well, I would say that ultimately, for folks who are traveling within the U.S., and folks who are traveling to other areas, we shouldn’t see any delays. We might see increased precautions. We may see screenings. I think many flights have experienced precautions, in terms of in-flight spraying of the passengers, to make sure that there’s any organisms will get sprayed, and so that there’s no transport of the organisms across countries. But ultimately, we should start to return to normal as the infection gets better contained and the incidence slows down. People should start to feel reassured that they’ll be OK, as long as they really are mindful about protecting themselves and not getting panicked about it.
Brian Kelly: Well, hopefully if there’s a silver lining to this, it’s that we all pick up better day-to-day practices that will help us with not just these one-off viruses, but the day-to-day germ transmission that we deal with and end up getting sick by. So, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge. You’ve definitely helped me understand a little bit more what’s at stake here, and how we can best protect ourselves. Dr. Le from Healthline Media, our sister site. Thank you so much for joining us.
Dr. Hanh Le: Thanks for having me.
Brian Kelly: Next up, we’ve got Ben Mutzabaugh, who is our senior aviation editor at The Points Guy, and he’s going to fill us in on the ever-changing new rules and regulations with air travel as it relates to the Wuhan coronavirus. That’s coming up right after this.
Brian Kelly: Welcome back to “Talking Points.” We just got off with Dr. Le of Healthline Media, and we talked about all things medically with the coronavirus and travel. Now let’s talk with Ben Mutzabaugh, who’s going to fill us in on what’s going on in the travel industry, especially with flights. Which ones are canceled, which ones might be canceled, as well as what to do if you’ve got a trip to China or throughout Asia. Ben Mutzabaugh, thank you so much for joining us.
Ben Mutzabaugh: It’s my pleasure.
Brian Kelly: Ben, just brief us. Can someone still fly from a U.S. city to mainland China today? This is Monday, February 3rd.
Ben Mutzabaugh: You know, there are still some Chinese airlines that are operating between the U.S. and [China]. But I think the first piece of advice I have on all of this is that anyone considering China travel right now, or even to Asia, should be aware that as this situation with the coronavirus grows and changes, there are going to be changes to the details day by day. So, right now you can still fly on some Chinese carriers from North America to China, but whether that changes by this afternoon or by the end of the week, it’s certainly a possibility.
Brian Kelly: But the U.S. carriers have all canceled. I know Delta is ’til what, at least the end of April? Have the other U.S. carriers given a timeline on how long that these flights will be disrupted?
Ben Mutzabaugh: That’s right. The airlines are winding down all of their flights, basically by today or this week, if they haven’t already. American and United have said that their suspension of service will go through the end of March, pretty much, for mainland China. Delta is, like you said, is the end of April. That’s what we expect now. That’s actually a pretty big window. But I think we’re all waiting to see exactly what happens with the coronavirus, and whether the airlines stick to those schedules. I know there are probably a lot of people in the industry nervous that maybe that could be extended, if this really drags on.
Brian Kelly: Ben, here’s a question. If people are traveling to countries outside of China, but within Asia, are there any precautions that they should take?
Ben Mutzabaugh: The best thing to do is to start with the airline that your travel is on and see what their details are, but know this: First of all, any flights that are canceled… which obviously includes all of the mainland China flights, basically from this week through March, and some into April… you are entitled by law to a cancellation from those flights. So, you can start there. If you have other travel on flights that are not currently canceled, all of the big three U.S. airlines are waiving change fees, with some variations in details, for flights that go through China and Hong Kong. If you are traveling to the region, especially if you’re going through China, you can probably change your details to move travel forward. Maybe get a refund from unused travel that you can apply toward a future booking. The details will vary depending on the operating carrier or the carrier you booked from, but there’s a lot of flexibility right now, given this outbreak.
Brian Kelly: Yeah. My take, too, is even if there’s not a specific instance of your flight being canceled, it never hurts to ask. I know a lot of times phone agents are granted flexibility with cancellations, especially in times like these. So, you might as well pick up the phone and call, because it never hurts to ask.
Ben Mutzabaugh: You know, and I think that’s great advice. You never know what the airline is going to say. Sometimes you may not get anywhere. Sometimes you may find an agent who is empowered to help you, by just being honest, but also polite and friendly. Remember, you’re trying to get them to help you. You can just say, “Hey, I’m going to Vietnam, or I’m going to Thailand, and I’m really concerned. Is there anything you can do to help me? Even if you can’t give me a refund, or waive the change fee — if I decide to go, is there a partner airline that you can have me connect through the Middle East or through Turkey, or something like that?” See if they are ways the airlines might be able to work with you. You may not get the answer you want, but like you said, it doesn’t hurt to ask.
Brian Kelly: I just had a friend this morning. He was in Australia. He lives in Germany. He had flown China, Air China, to get to Australia a month ago. His holidays are coming to an end, and he just found out he couldn’t actually leave from Australia to Beijing because the flight was canceled, even though the Beijing to Germany flight was still on. So he’s kind of stranded. They’re giving him a refund, but he’s now on the hook to pay for a last-minute one-way ticket, which isn’t cheap. So, just a reminder that if you have plans, even transit through China, things could be thrown into a wrench. Now, let’s speak about what happens if you’re in that situation. Does travel insurance… Are there any credit cards that are going to come to the rescue here, if you’re in such a situation?
Ben Mutzabaugh: You know, we have not heard good news on this particular topic. The outbreak of the virus is not considered a covered reason for many of these cards. That includes Chase and AmEx for right now. So, generally no, you’re not covered. Whether this is covered by separate travel insurance that you may have purchased — Again, that is going to depend on the exact details and the fine print of your policy. But yeah, this has been one area that’s been a little prickly for travelers hoping to recoup some of their losses or extra expenses here.
Brian Kelly: Yeah. I think the key is with travel insurance, do a search on your policy for “pandemic.” I think that’s usually the exclusion in most of these policies. Is that right?
Ben Mutzabaugh: That’s as I understand it. Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. You know, this is certainly not your run-of-the-mill situation, and there’s probably language in your policy that spells that out.
Brian Kelly: Yup. What about hotels? What have their policies been? Similar to airlines, in being pretty flexible?
Ben Mutzabaugh: We’ve seen a fair amount of flexibility for this. You know, The Points Guy has talked to multiple hotel chains, who have all said they’re going to offer free changes or cancellations for bookings up to February 8th, and I imagine that will extend as the situation unfolds. So pay attention to the news. Pay attention to our updates on The Points Guy. That’s where you’ll see the latest information.
Ben Mutzabaugh: You know, we’ve seen some other things, too. Disney has said it will refund some admission fees for Shanghai. It’s not sure when the park might reopen. But if you have pre-purchased tickets there, that is in the works. So, the hotel industry, some of these other tourist-facing places, we have seen some flexibility. I think, like with everything, its individual mileage may vary, as they say. But definitely call. See if they can be flexible with your reservations. At the very least, if you find that you are talking to someone who’s giving you … a hotel that’s giving you a hard time for a refund, ask if you can at least move it and get a credit towards another stay. Again, ask for them to help you if you are running up against a wall. But we have seen that there are free changes and cancellations, so far for a short window, at this point.
Brian Kelly: Ben, I’m just curious. You’re an intrepid traveler. I see you on Instagram traveling all over the world. If you had a trip to Bangkok in two weeks, would you try to cancel it, or would you feel confident in going?
Ben Mutzabaugh: Oh, gosh. That is a great question. You know, I’ve actually thought about this, and I don’t know what I would do. To say that I would go to Bangkok, even if I was connecting through areas that haven’t been hard hit, I don’t know. I’m torn. I recognize the chances, from what we currently know, of coming into contact with this seem low. But I’ll be honest. I’m not probably looking to book travel to Southeast Asia in the next eight-week window.
Brian Kelly: Yeah. No. And sorry to put you on the spot, but I was just really curious. I wouldn’t either, even though it’s probably totally fine. Now, if it was Maldives, I think I would probably… If I had a preexisting trip to the Maldives via Dubai or Qatar, I probably would still do it, although I’d have to probably just wait, and let’s see how this shakes out.
Ben Mutzabaugh: Yeah. I’m with you 100% on that. I think some of it is… And I don’t know if I’ve become … fallen subject to the hysteria around it that some people say the media has. But there’s something about being on an isolated island in the Maldives, having transited through a hub that’s not in Asia, that I would feel more comfortable with, versus being on the bustling streets of Bangkok, where you’re just more likely to come into contact with people. Which is obviously … You go to Maldives for a fairly exclusive experience, so they do seem a little different to me, also.
Brian Kelly: You know, I had read our article on Sri Lankan Airlines. They had their rescue flight, and it was wild to see people getting hosed down with whatever the disinfectant was. And the fact that they put that plane back into commercial service later that evening… I’m sure they gave it a good scrub-down. But, you know, when you’re talking viruses, and how quickly this seems to spread between people, that doesn’t require contact, and the fact that a 44-year-old man just died this past weekend… It does make you think, as much as I love travel, and as much as you don’t want to be subject to media hysteria, this is still our lives at hand. You know? And it’s clearly a big issue. So, I just want to say I don’t fault you for saying that you wouldn’t travel, and I probably wouldn’t, either.
Ben Mutzabaugh: Yeah. I’d definitely at least give it some thought. And you know… Yeah, that was remarkable video and scenes from that flight you just mentioned. And I think, I don’t know. You can be armed with all the facts, and know your chances for catching this virus are very small, but to see that and to watch them spray down people, and to see the plane go back in service, I just… It’s hard not to just wonder. And you know, I just think that’s a natural reaction many people of us have, whether or not we are up to speed on the facts, and the real risk versus the perceived one.
Brian Kelly: Well, I think the biggest issue that Dr. Le brought up, too, is that we may not be even getting the full picture of how bad this is. So, there may be 5X as many infections. I think there’s been long holds in terms of testing. So, we don’t even know the whole picture. So I actually, luckily, had no real travel planned in February, March of this year, because I wanted to slow down, so timing-wise… But I do feel for people who have honeymoons and trips of a lifetime planned, and now have to deal with this real threat of this virus.
Brian Kelly: Let’s end it on an aviation geek note. So, these airlines are pulling off 787s and A350s from China service. Can we see these big wide-body jets now being put on popular routes, like JFK to Atlanta, and putting them in rotation on domestic routes, now that this China capacity one day just fell off a cliff?
Ben Mutzabaugh: Oh, what a fun question. Right? Yeah. You know, so I think there are two ways to look at this. I think every schedule planner right now for one of these airlines has had probably one of the busiest four days of their lives, trying to figure out what to do with all of these planes. And I think honestly, they’re still trying to sort that out for themselves. But what I expect to happen… and you know, our reporter, Edward Russell, has a great story on this that we just put up on the Plane Sky website… You know, I would expect several things to happen. Some of these planes are going to be put into maintenance, wherever they can be scheduled in. That’s not as easy as just sending it to a facility to get maintenance. These things are scheduled out far in advance. But it does open some flexibility there, so that’s a possibility.
Ben Mutzabaugh: You are going to see some wide-bodies on unexpected routes like Dallas to L.A., or possibly New York to Atlanta. They’re going to be unpredictable. When you suddenly find yourself with all these spare wide-body planes — on short notice, they’re a little hard to weave into the schedule. But if an airline knows it has an oversold flight from Dallas to LAX a week out, it certainly becomes a possibility. So, they’re going to be hard to spot. You’ll be delighted if you’re on one of those flights, and suddenly you find yourself on a Dreamliner or a triple-seven, especially if your upgrade clears into a lie-flat. But that’s going to be interesting to watch, to see what really happens. You’re not going to see them all parked in the desert somewhere, but how the airlines choose to incorporate these into their existing schedules on, for a scheduling perspective, what’s short notice, will be fascinating to watch.
Brian Kelly: On a final note, so the airlines have been posting record profits. You know, Delta just shared $1.8 billion with their employees through profit-sharing. This, outside of just China capacities, is going to have ripple effects across the travel industry. Should the airlines be concerned? Is this, do you think, a big enough deal that could bankrupt maybe an airline that’s already on shaky ground, like Norwegian?
Ben Mutzabaugh: It’s not good news, right? So, I think right now it’s a little too early to say. Where I would have some concerns down the road is you have a lot of small regional or mid-sized regional carriers in Asia that have a huge exposure to China or are Chinese-based. The state-owned airlines of China may have some avenue for recourse that other airlines might not. But yeah, I would be more concerned for some of the regional airlines in Asia, and that only depends on how far, how long, the coronavirus situation lasts.
Ben Mutzabaugh: For airlines in Europe or the Americas, my sense at the moment is that this is clearly going to have an impact on the bottom line. I don’t see anyone in those regions being so vulnerable that this pushes them over the edge, but let’s be clear. No airline is going to make more money because of this, and we are going to see probably a relatively long tail for demand to rebound once coronavirus ends. So, yeah. This is going to be a financial impact for the airlines, and at least for those in Europe and the Americas. I don’t think it’s going to push any over the edge, but let’s keep an eye on those earnings as this drags on.
Brian Kelly: Let’s end on a passenger focus. What advice would you have for passengers who might be traveling internationally? You know, there’s tons of checks that are being put into place now. Would you recommend people book longer layovers, show up to the airport earlier or bring their own blankets on planes? You know, do you have any advice for travelers who have no choice but to travel internationally?
Ben Mutzabaugh: I think all of those are great questions. You know, my other half is on his way to Argentina for a business trip, and needless to say, Dallas-Buenos Aires is not one of the routes that coronavirus comes to the top of mind, but you don’t know who else is going to be on the plane. You don’t necessarily know where all else they have been. So, do whatever makes you feel comfortable. Get masks if you need to, which is… We had a big order of masks come to our house the other day for the flight. Have some disinfecting wipes to clear down your seat, just to minimize the risk.
Ben Mutzabaugh: And you know, I think the health experts have it right. Like any other virus, there’s a lot you can do to avoid being exposed. Wash your hands. Avoid touching your face without washing your hands. That type of thing. You know, I know we have got a lot of great advice on The Points Guy for how to travel with health in mind as the coronavirus is here. So, just listen to the health experts, and if there are things that make you feel more comfortable… If it’s bringing your own blanket, do it. At the very least, you’re going to have peace of mind.
Brian Kelly:I’m just curious. Your partner’s flight, were there any precautions, or did they have screening for passengers, even though it wasn’t an Asia-related flight? Just curious if there was anything out of the ordinary.
Ben Mutzabaugh: So it’s next week, and we have not heard anything yet.
Brian Kelly: Oh, OK.
Ben Mutzabaugh: But we’ll be able to give you a report once it happens.
Brian Kelly: Well, we’ll be writing about it at thepointsguy.com. Ben Mutzabaugh, thank you so much for joining us and giving us insight into the industry, and sharing your invaluable tips.
Ben Mutzabaugh: Great. Thanks for having me, Brian. I appreciate it.
Brian Kelly: That’s it for this episode of “Talking Points.” Hopefully you found it informative, as we try to sort through this glut of information on all things coronavirus. I know my key takeaway is that I am going to disinfect my seat, which I historically have been too lazy to do, and maybe felt a little invincible, that, “Oh, I’m sure since I fly so much, I have built up a resistance to anything.” But clearly that’s not the case. And I think that’s a smart thing we’re all going to learn from this, is to better take care of ourselves, especially while traveling. Huge thanks to Dr. Le from Healthline Media, and to our guest from TPG, Ben Mutzabaugh. That’s it for this episode of “Talking Points.” Safe travels, everyone.
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