Pandemic-related transportation changes not going away

by Deanna Driver-

The coronavirus impacted almost every facet of life in 2020, including travel. Most modes of public transportation were affected, leaving employers and travelers alike in a state of disarray. According to the World Tourism Organization, international arrivals decreased by 74% in 2020. The past three years experienced a great deal of drastic change in terms of health/safety protocols, traveler numbers and price fluctuations in all spheres of transportation.

Due to the close-knit nature of air travel, COVID-19 negatively affected this mode of transportation with its ability to rapidly transmit from individual to individual. Photo taken on March 24, Virginia Tech Montgomery Executive Airport. (Photo by Deanna Driver)

Air travel was greatly affected by the pandemic and quickly had to adapt to the changing environment. Heather Ream, Director of Marketing and Communications at Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport (SHD) said the airport immediately began implementing safety measures to keep passengers safe in 2020. 

“We had been working on an expansion of our sterile area with the addition of a glass partition wall that could be raised or lowered to accommodate larger passenger loads. This extra space came in handy during the pandemic because it allowed passengers to spread out more.”

Ream stated that due to its small size, the airport maintained its air service connectivity and continued servicing individuals, especially through corporate aircraft usage which reduced exposure. This was not true for all airports, however; according to an article on the Insider website, 2020 had the lowest passenger numbers in over a decade, and a lot of employees and passengers suffered as a result. 

Despite the severity of the pandemic, people still needed to travel, and Amtrak remained one of those resources. Amtrak’s Senior Public Relations Manager, Kimberly Woods, like Ream, said the organization worked quickly to make passengers feel safe. 

“It was important for customers to be aware of the enhanced safety and cleaning measures. We worked to simplify and safeguard the travel experience, and several cleaning, contact-free and convenience measures were implemented into every part of the customer journey.”

In July 2021, SHD saw an all-time high in number of passengers serviced as travel resurged. However, surprisingly, the most drastic shift for SHD’s air travel came in March 2022. A large number of older pilots retired after being furloughed, and additionally, finding staff for the mechanical portion of plane maintenance was difficult. 

“Unfortunately, the regional airlines were hit the hardest by these workforce issues and many had no choice but to decrease the number of markets served due to no crews to operate the flights,” Ream stated. 

In this same period, Amtrak didn’t note any issues with staffing. Some routes discontinued according to an AP article, but other than mask mandates, physical distancing guidelines, and an emphasis on reservation systems, Amtrak services operated relatively normally in 2021 and 2022.  

Now, in 2023, a sense of normalcy has returned to the travel sphere, but certain practices and policies from the peak pandemic era stuck around. For one, ticket prices increased as a result of higher demand and lower number of available pilots and employees. Additionally, certain safety measures still exist. 

As a result of the pandemic, plane tickets prices have soared. This uptick in price is a culmination of many things: lack of adequate staff, increased jet fuel prices and increased demand by customers. Photo taken on March 22, 2023. (Photo by Deanna Driver)

“We are still using the glass partition wall to give passengers extra space post screening. Our hand sanitizer stations are still in place throughout the terminal and our building maintenance team maintains the additional cleaning procedures put in place during the pandemic,” Ream said.

Amtrak has seen a wave of new customers utilizing their services since travel has surged again.

“We are seeing customers who are traveling on Amtrak for the first time. New riders skew younger with less income and education and slightly more racial diversity. Our ridership has returned to 84% of pre-pandemic levels and continues to improve,” Woods said. 

COVID-19 dismantled the way the world operated for a significant time, but by adapting guidelines to make everyone as safe as possible, travel institutions navigated the ever-changing landscape. 

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