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Some People Are Still Taking Flights Despite The Coronavirus Pandemic

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Airlines have been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic. An industry group leader told a Senate committee today that U.S. airlines are burning through $10 billion a month to fly planes that carry an average of just 17 passengers each. So who are those people who are still flying? NPR's transportation correspondent David Schaper and producer Liz Baker went to a couple of airports to find out.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Normally, the scene at one of the nation's busiest airports is one of controlled chaos. Traffic leading into Chicago's O'Hare is almost always jammed up - the terminal curbs teeming with travelers jumping out of Ubers, taxis and shuttle buses. Inside, there would normally be mobs of people dragging roller bags, trying to figure out which interminable line to get into - but not anymore. Now there are hardly any travelers and just row after row of empty check-in kiosks and counters with a dozen or so airline employees just standing around with no one to help.

QUINN SCANNELL: I feel like I'm in a "Twilight Zone" episode kind of. It's just super eerie.

SCHAPER: Twenty-one-year-old Quinn Scannell was living in Madagascar but had to leave as the borders there closed, and he's returning home. Other travelers include students who are studying abroad, people going to be closer to family and those whose work is essential. Among them is 47-year-old Kension Edwards, a medical equipment service technician from Raleigh, N.C.

KENSION EDWARDS: For what we're working on, it's important for lots of people, so that's my way of doing my part, I guess.

SCHAPER: Edwards says, with no long lines and airplane middle seats blocked out, there are fewer headaches in traveling now.

EDWARDS: It's nice having extra room. It is still a little bit scary because it's - I think it's a little bit more serious than most people thought at first.

SCHAPER: Another essential work traveler is electrical engineer Brian Brackensick of Houston.

BRIAN BRACKENSICK: I'm going to Indianapolis to repair some gear that's used for environmental cleanup.

SCHAPER: Brackensick says some of his company's chemical spill cleanup projects are now on hold.

BRACKENSICK: But some of them are critical. The EPA will push them forward and say, you know, even with coronavirus, we have to - we still have to clean up everyone's drinking water and make sure all those contaminants are being pulled out.

SCHAPER: And because of the coronavirus, he no longer travels back home on weekends, instead staying on site until the job is done. Inside O'Hare's United Airlines terminal, the Starbucks, McDonald's and a few other eateries are open, but most are closed. As the largest hub in United's system, some 60,000 passengers used to go in and out of this terminal each day - now just 3,000. One of them is 21-year-old Margaux Gex, who is returning home to Switzerland after attending college in Seattle.

MARGAUX GEX: It just feels really weird to, like - you know, there's just, like, fear around you, you know? Like, you see people too close, and you're like, are they supposed to be too close?

SCHAPER: And that's in the terminal, where physical distancing is mostly possible. On the plane, it's another story, as my colleague Liz Baker reports.

UNIDENTIFIED FLIGHT ATTENDANT: Ladies and gentlemen, we'll be leaving the gate soon (ph).

LIZ BAKER, BYLINE: Even with middle seats blocked off, a recent flight from LAX to Detroit was the most crowded plane frequent travelers like Johannes Pulst-Korenberg has seen in weeks.

JOHANNES PULST-KORENBERG: Planes were ghost towns as of the last two weeks that I've been traveling, and now it's like a third of seats are filled or so. I don't know - a fourth.

BAKER: Pulst-Korenberg is a neurologist splitting his time between LA and Philadelphia, something he said sounded like an OK plan before COVID.

PULST-KORENBERG: And now with COVID, it's a little more awkward, although I still feel fundamentally safe because I wear a good mask. And I know how to use it. I am a little concerned, though. I definitely don't trust the average person to not fly if they're sick. And I think that if you have the sniffles, it's not going to prevent you from getting on a plane.

BAKER: On this flight, nobody dares to sniffle, and everyone wears a face covering. When a flight attendant passes out a snack pack, a strange thing happens. Passengers eagerly dig past the Cheez-Its to get to the coveted Purell wipe inside. Jabar Akbar has a surgical mask he picked up on the job.

JABAR AKBAR: I'm a nurse from Los Angeles headed to Connecticut to help with the coronavirus epidemic.

BAKER: Akbar has been travelling constantly since March, working at hospitals hit hard by COVID-19.

AKBAR: I want to be on the front line. I think that's where my skills are best served.

BAKER: And getting to the front line requires flying.

UNIDENTIFIED FLIGHT ATTENDANT: It's our pleasure to welcome you to Detroit. The local time is approximately 2 o'clock.

BAKER: Another airport, another unusually quiet scene - Wagner Jean-Baptiste lingers at a nearly deserted gate. He's been travelling nonstop for weeks for his job installing the new 5G Internet. Jean-Baptiste sympathizes with anyone avoiding airplanes right now. He'd avoid them too if he could.

WAGNER JEAN-BAPTISTE: This is the fastest way and the only way to pretty much travel. Honestly, if I had a vehicle right now, I'd probably drive.

BAKER: So when his row is called, he tugs a purple bandanna up over his nose and heads through the gate.

SCHAPER: He's one of about a dozen people boarding that flight to Rochester on a small plane that could carry 50 or more. That appears to be the new normal in air travel right now.

David Schaper.

BAKER: And Liz Baker, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.