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The New Travel Document: Photograph of an Empty Plane


The story of air travel’s shutdown can be told in numbers.

Helane Becker, managing director and senior airline analyst at Cowen, an investment bank, estimates between 40 and 60 percent of United States domestic flights have been canceled. Cancellations of international flights are even higher, about 85 percent, she said.

But photographs will do just as well.

Very few people are flying right now. But among those who are, many have found themselves on almost empty planes — and have captured that emptiness in photographs. Almost uniformly, they capture rows of vacant seats, a few heads poking above them, and vast acreage of overhead storage free for the taking. Many such photos have been posted to Instagram and Twitter in recent days. Others were shared directly with The New York Times’s Travel desk.

Lindsey Ferrentino, who flew home from Newark to Orlando, Fla., on Saturday, bought three tickets for herself — one with points, and two for $17.40 each — to ensure she’d have some space around her on the flight. When she boarded the plane, an Airbus A320 (capacity: about 150), it was almost entirely empty.

So few people were gathered at the gate, Ms. Ferrentino said, that the attendants didn’t bother making any boarding announcements over the public address system. “A guy just came out and said to the few people gathered, ‘OK, you can get on now.’”

Mats Edwards, a senior at Tufts University, took an empty plane shot on his Alaska Airlines flight home to Seattle from Boston’s Logan Airport on Monday afternoon.

No one was lined up for security screening, so there was no need to practice social distancing.

When it was time to board, the “Now boarding Group A,” announcement yielded just one traveler, Mr. Edwards said. He estimates there were about 20 passengers and four flight attendants on the Boeing 737-900, a plane that usually seats about 170 people.

The passengers spread out around the plane, which pushed back from the gate at about 5 p.m., and then Mr. Edwards took his photograph.

Onboard, packaged snacks and canned drinks were served by gloved flight attendants. “They came around often to see if we needed anything,” said Mr. Edwards, who described the mood on board as quiet and subdued.

The emptiness encountered in recent days at airports and aboard planes provides a striking visual contrast to the chaotic logjams experienced less than two weeks earlier by passengers rushing to return from Europe. The juxtaposition is evidence of how quickly and drastically the travel landscape, in particular, is shifting in the face of the global coronavirus pandemic.

This latest round of images has swept across social media. Tracey Hart captured an emptied-out terminal at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport with a video she posted to Twitter. “I’m happy to see that DCA Reagan airport is empty and people are heeding the advice to stay at home,” she wrote.

Franchesca Ramsey, a comedian, flew JetBlue from Los Angeles to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on what felt like a totally empty plane. She said via Twitter that there were between five and seven people on the flight.

Michael Morris, 30, and his wife flew from Auckland, New Zealand, last week, stopping in San Francisco on their way home from vacation. On the international leg of the journey the plane was full, but their connecting United flight to Austin, Tex., had seven passengers and four flight attendants. That flight, known as the “nerd bird” among those who take it regularly because it connects California’s Silicon Valley to Texas’s Silicon Hills, is usually packed.

The flight attendants wouldn’t let any of the seven passengers, who were all sitting in economy, move up to the empty premium seats, said Mr. Morris, a graduate student at the University of Texas, in an email. Those seats sat empty while the passengers spread out as much in the back of the plane.

The stimulus package passed by the Senate on Wednesday night included a $500 billion government-lending program for distressed companies, which would include the airlines. The government would also be able to take an equity stake in airlines that received aid to help compensate taxpayers.


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