Cumberland Advisors Market Commentary – Flying to Florida

Author: , Post Date: November 15, 2020
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Investors and clients ask about the transportation sector and specifically airlines.  The outlook is dependent on travelers’ perceived personal safety (COVID vaccines and treatment options) in addition to economic recovery that can generate the incomes to cover the costs.  There isn’t much more we can add to that investment perspective.

Market Commentary - Cumberland Advisors - Flying to Florida

We do field direct questions from readers (clients, family, and strangers) about whether it is safe to fly to Florida.  So let’s try breaking down the questions and the answers into manageable chunks.  Lot’s of citations here so readers can be fully informed.

First, how safe is it to fly, period? Taking a flight is a lot safer than sharing an indoor, necessarily unmasked, Thanksgiving dinner with the extended family and possibly even safer than going to the grocery store, but it is not entirely without risk. Airlines and airports are taking a variety of measures to minimize the chances that travelers will be infected when they fly. They will continue to make improvements – they want business back, and that’s ground they can’t regain with some travelers until those would-be passengers feel safe taking a flight. Recent studies and articles have sized up the risk of traveling by air. The news is generally good. Readers, of course, must make decisions based on their risk profiles, their reasons for traveling, their risk tolerance, and conditions at their destinations. Here are some helpful recent reads on this subject, all noting a relatively low risk involved in taking a flight:

“How Safe Is Flying in the Age of Coronavirus?”
https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-30/how-safe-is-flying-in-the-age-of-coronavirus-quicktake

“Travel during the COVID-19 Pandemic,”
https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/travel-during-COVID19.html

An AARP article summarizes a recent Harvard study: “Flying During Pandemic Is Low-Risk, Harvard Researchers Say,”
https://www.aarp.org/travel/travel-tips/safety/info-2020/harvard-study-on-COVID-19-flying-risk.html

The complete report from Harvard’s Aviation Public Health Initiative (APHI) is available here and is a long read: “Phase I Report: The Aircraft,”
https://npli.sph.harvard.edu/crisis-research/aviation-public-health-initiative-aphi/. This phase 1 report addresses only the flight itself and not risks travelers may encounter at the airport or on public transport like the bus from the parking lot to the terminal. On Twitter, Dr. Theresa Chapple commented on the APHI study, “Note this study didn’t focus on other aspects of air travel such as security lines, airport lounges, airport eating areas, baggage claim, overnight flights (where people are more likely to remove masks to sleep) shared transit to airport, all opportunities for transmission” (https://twitter.com/Theresa_Chapple/status/1322883998679523328). Those are important additional considerations to be addressed in later phases of the study, but travelers have to do their own assessments in the meantime.

On the discussion thread that follows Dr. Chapple’s tweet, Joseph Allen, an associate professor of exposure science at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a commissioner on The Lancet COVID-19 Commission, points out, “The middle seat is not the problem. The lack of gate-based ventilation is.” One important question flyers will want to ask an airline about a flight is whether a gate-based ventilation system will be in use when the plane’s own ventilation system is turned off at the gate before departure and after arrival. COVID-19 safety for travelers is not just about the big, obvious things that airlines and airports can get right or wrong. It’s about risk along all stages the journey. See Professor Allen’s tweet and the information he linked here: https://twitter.com/j_g_allen/status/1319604094600970245.

Despite assessments concluding that the risk of taking a flight is low, there is some evidence of risk related to flights, and our survey would not be complete if we left this out.

As of late October, 98 air marshals had contracted COVID-19 and 14 had active cases. One, who believed he had contracted the illness on a flight, died. However, the Transportation Security Administration, the source of this data, did not have information confirming how many of these cases were directly related to air marshals’ time in airports and on planes. (“The airlines insist flying is safe. But nearly 100 U.S. air marshals have been infected with COVID-19,” https://news.yahoo.com/the-airlines-insist-flying-is-safe-but-nearly-100-us-air-marshals-have-been-infected-with-COVID-19-192022228.html)

The CDC tells us that 1600 COVID-infected passengers have boarded planes, potentially exposing almost 11,000 people. However, because flight-based contact tracing isn’t really happening in the US, no one can say how many people might have been infected as a result. We want to hope that the number is not high. (“Nearly 11,000 people have been exposed to the coronavirus on flights, the CDC says,” https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/nearly-11000-people-have-been-exposed-to-the-coronavirus-on-flights-the-cdc-says/2020/09/19/d609adbc-ed27-11ea-99a1-71343d03bc29_story.html)

CIDRAP reports on three studies documenting COVID-19 spread among passengers on international flights. In the first study, though transmission could have happened at the gate or at baggage claim, proximity of passengers aboard the plane appears to have been a factor. We can’t know whether ventilation or lack thereof at departure and arrival gates might also have been a factor. Screening did not catch the active infection of the one passenger who spread the virus to 15 of 168 others on a March 2 flight from London to Hanoi. (“Studies trace COVID-19 spread to international flights,” https://www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2020/09/studies-trace-COVID-19-spread-international-flights) It is worth remembering, however, that as the world has learned more about the virus and its capacity for airborne transmission, airlines and airports have stepped up their games. What was then is not the same as now.

What measures will entice people to fly again? A majority of travelers are willing to pay more for a ticket if they know that middle seats will not be occupied, creating a measure of social distancing for an additional layer of safety (“63% of U.S. consumers are willing to pay more to have seats blocked—here are the airline policies on this,” https://www.cnbc.com/select/coronavirus-airline-crowded-flight-policies/).

One study published at medRxiv found that empty middle seats probably do reduce transmission risk by somewhat less than half, but the study also finds that plane-based risk is already very low. That study has not been peer-reviewed as of the time of this writing. Freely admitting to a large possible margin of error, its authors calculate the risk of catching COVID-19 aboard a full 2-hour domestic flight to be 1/3900, and the risk aboard the same flight with empty middle seats to be 1/6400. (“COVID-19 Risk Among Airline Passengers: Should the Middle Seat Stay Empty?,” https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.07.02.20143826v4.full.pdf)

Florida does not require that passengers have negative COVID-19 testing results in hand in order to fly, but rapid testing of passengers at the airport before flights take off is another attractive idea for concerned travelers (“Itching to Travel? Preflight Coronavirus Tests Are Getting Passengers In The Air,” https://www.npr.org/2020/10/26/927334455/can-pre-flight-COVID-19-testing-get-travelers-back-on-planes).

One airport in Florida, Tampa International, offers rapid testing (“Tampa International Airport expands COVID-19 testing program for passengers,” https://www.wfla.com/community/health/coronavirus/tampa-international-airport-expands-COVID-19-testing-program-for-passengers/).

The dirty little non-secret is that COVID-19 tests are not particularly sensitive, so it is actually possible for passengers to test negative and be both infected and potentially contagious. COVID-19 testing at airports will catch some cases, but not all. COVID is tough that way: People can be sick for days before they test positive, and they can infect others before they know they are sick. That’s why precautions such as masking, distancing, and continuous ventilation/filtration remain essential. Holly Yan, reporting for CNN, reports on a study on those false negative test results, published in September in the Annals of Internal Medicine :

“On the day people started showing symptoms, the average false-negative rate had dropped to 38%, according to the study. Three days after symptoms started, the false-negative rate dropped to 20%.

“‘The virus just takes time to replicate in the body to detectable levels,’ said Justin Lessler, a senior author of the study and associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.”

Readers can access the entire article at this link: “Don’t get a false sense of security with COVID-19 testing. Here’s why you can test negative but still be infected and contagious,” https://www.cnn.com/2020/11/03/health/COVID-test-negative-contagious-wellness/index.html.

Some readers may prefer to dive directly and deeply into this study, “Variation in False-Negative Rate of Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction–Based SARS-CoV-2 Tests by Time Since Exposure,” at https://www.acpjournals.org/doi/10.7326/M20-1495.

Relying on evidence gathered in study after study, airlines require passengers to wear masks to help prevent spread of the virus. (See “Masks Work. Really. We’ll Show You How,” https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/10/30/science/wear-mask-COVID-particles-ul.html.) Airlines are banning would-be passengers who refuse to wear appropriate face coverings. Some airlines publish their no-fly lists; others don’t.  Delta’s no-fly list is the longest (“Delta, United and Alaska Airlines have banned more than 900 passengers for not wearing masks,”
https://www.washingtonpost.com/travel/2020/10/26/airlines-banning-passengers-masks/). In September, a Delta flight returned to the airport when one passenger refused to comply with the mask requirement. “Delta Flight Turns Back After Passenger Refuses to Wear Mask,” https://www.travelpulse.com/news/airlines/delta-flight-turns-back-after-passenger-refuses-to-wear-mask.html.

So, let’s ask the question again: is it safe to fly? The answer seems to be that it appears to be relatively safe, and some airlines are probably a safer bet than others, but that flying is not entirely without risk. The risks involved, however, can be managed. A particularly well-done article written by Scott McCartney in July for the Wall Street Journal observes that the greatest COVID risk for passengers may come at boarding and deboarding, that flight attendants do not see a higher incidence of COVID cases than other airline employees do (about 20% have been infected), and that the COVID risk involved in taking a flight is perhaps best characterized as “moderate” (“The Greatest Coronavirus Risks When You Fly,”

https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-greatest-coronavirus-risks-when-you-fly-11594824268). With compelling graphics showing how ventilation aboard flights actually works, it’s still a very good read.

Here’s how world traveler Rick Steves worked through his own personal risk calculations to board a plane, at least for one important trip: “Is It Safe to Fly During the Coronavirus? One Traveler’s Risk Assessment,”

https://blog.ricksteves.com/cameron/2020/09/coronavirus-flying/.

An article cited above, “63% of U.S. consumers are willing to pay more to have seats blocked—here are the airline policies on this,” https://www.cnbc.com/select/coronavirus-airline-crowded-flight-policies/, contains links to the COVID safety measures being followed by various airlines. The compilation of links is a timesaver for ready comparisons. Since airlines’ COVID policies vary, travelers have more to consider than flight schedules, prices, and the number of plane changes along a route. COVID-19 measures are also decisive factors for many, and there are various ratings and rankings of airlines based on their COVID-19 policies. See Skytrax’s COVID-19 airline safety ratings for an example: https://skytraxratings.com/COVID-19-airline-safety-ratings/a-complete-guide-to-airline-coronavirus-safety-policies. Skytrax rates airlines and airports around the world.

So, what about flying to Florida?  Airlines and the State of Florida would love to make that happen, as both Florida jobs and the state’s economy are at stake. (“Florida job losses continue as airline industry cuts workers,” https://www.wptv.com/money/florida-job-losses-continue-as-airline-industry-cuts-workers). Please note that air travel throughout the US is still down sharply – and more so than many other places in the world (“How Coronavirus Ravaged Travel in 2020,” https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-coronavirus-ravaged-travel-in-2020-11604500952). COVID safety, for both airlines and for the state, is good business, and COVID safety report cards and rankings garner travelers’ attention. Having rated airlines themselves, Skytrax has begun the process of developing COVID-19 safety ratings for airports around the globe; but since these ratings are based on on-site inspections, only a limited number of airports in the US have these ratings to date. None in Florida does at the time of this writing. Still, the resource is one to keep in mind for those who plan to travel. See “A–Z COVID-19 Ratings,” https://skytraxratings.com/index-of-COVID-19-airport-ratings.

Listed below are selected Florida airports and links to the COVID-related information they have published online. There is variation among them. Orlando International posts reassuring pictures of all they are doing to keep the airport safe. Some airports feature perky safety videos highlighting safety measures and procedures in videos that do not depict crowded situations. Sarasota Bradenton International Airport notes that “SRQ uses hospital grade filters plus UV disinfection lights internally in the airport’s air conditioning system,” addressing the potential for airborne spread of the virus in the airport itself. We like that here in Sarasota, and we do not see this measure in place everywhere. Tampa International, as mentioned above, now offers PCR and rapid antigen testing at the airport. We applaud that service even though testing can’t come with a guarantee. Travelers can do their own assessments as to which Florida airports might be meet their personal standards for relatively safe travel.

Orlando International
https://www.orlandoairports.net/coronavirus-COVID-19/

Miami International
http://www.miami-airport.com/COVID_19.asp

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International
https://www.broward.org/airport/passengers/flights/advisories/pages/default.aspx

Tampa International
https://www.tampaairport.com/

Southwest Florida International
https://www.flylcpa.com/alert/

Sarasota–Bradenton International
https://srq-airport.com/what-expect-airport

What happens after you get to Florida?   As for the COVID-19 situation on the ground in Florida, travelers will want to check the website of the Florida Department of Public Health, though we must remind readers that data there can be both late and incomplete: https://experience.arcgis.com/experience/96dd742462124fa0b38ddedb9b25e429. We strongly suggest Rebekah Jones’s site, Florida COVID Action, for credible and independently researched COVID data that is more complete and thus more useful: https://experience.arcgis.com/experience/d2726d6c01c4486181fec2d4373b01fa.

Mask requirements across Florida are, of course, a patchwork, given the lack of a statewide mask mandate here. Governor DeSantis anti-masking rules policy is a mess.  He will do nothing to help local governments enforce a community masking ordinance.  Travelers will want to check the policies and regulations in place at potential destinations to assess whether they are comfortable with the level of risk outside the airport. Here is an overall picture of mask policies in place in Florida: “Beyond the veil: What mask requirements are in place in Florida?” https://floridapolitics.com/archives/342364-beyond-the-veil-what-face-mask-requirements-are-in-place-in-florida. This site is a starting point. But, as any traveler can tell you, what’s on paper, whether that paper is an ordinance or a sign at the door, may not be what’s enforced. People who want or need to be especially careful will want to assess what situations they are actually likely to encounter where they plan to visit. Check local news sources for stories that reveal the behaviors and sentiments of a community. Call ahead and ask questions of hotels, restaurants, and businesses. COVID-19 rankings and report cards are out there for hotel chains. See, for instance, this example from MarketWatch: “Report card: Which hotel brands have adapted best to COVID-19?” https://www.marketwatch.com/story/report-card-which-hotel-brands-have-adapted-best-to-COVID-19-2020-08-25. There are others.

In Florida everything by domestic commercial air is wide open and without restrictions. See https://floridahealthCOVID19.gov/travelers/, along with this page from the Transportation Security Administration: https://www.tsa.gov/coronavirus for guidance and details. Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, has essentially said anything goes. So people need to think for themselves. DeSantis has a reputation for covering up data and suppressing information. We have not seen any behavioral changes from our Governor.  Sad, but true.

Governor DeSantis still doesn’t grasp that transparency and truth remain the fastest way to economic recovery. Taiwan is the model for that. Florida is an example of failure. See our commentary “Florida vs. Taiwan,” https://www.cumber.com/cumberland-advisors-market-commentary-florida-vs-taiwan/ for more on the stark contrasts between these two places with populations of a similar size.

From a pro-business view, offering complete and timely data is way to get the Florida economy growing. Data enables people to make decisions about where to go and where not to and how to travel safely and where and how to handle business. Cumberland has clients throughout the state from Jacksonville to Key West and Fort Lauderdale to St. Petersburg. Our clients and our staff use nearly all of the airports in Florida, so we have a continuous on-site observational platform. We will be of help if we can.

A postscript: International travel, needless to say, has been slowed to an essential trickle, for the most part, given current travel restrictions. For an overview, see “Where in the World Can I go,” https://www.nytimes.com/article/coronavirus-travel-restrictions.html. See also the relevant CDC page: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/from-other-countries.html.

Looking ahead, there is still a debate going on about what measures should be in place when international travel can pick up again: “COVID-19 Testing vs. Quarantines for International Flights: Airlines and U.S. Transportation Officials Spar With CDC, https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-transportation-officials-airlines-spar-with-cdc-over-testing-vs-quarantines-for-international-flights-11603996361.

See also “New COVID-19 Passport Could Help Relaunch International Travel,” https://www.travelpulse.com/news/travel-technology/new-COVID-19-passport-could-help-relaunch-international-travel.html.

Travel safely.  Fly safely.   Be safe.   Happy Sunday morning.

David R. Kotok
Chairman of the Board & Chief Investment Officer
Email | Bio

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