EDITORIAL: It’s no longer fear of flying; it’s fear of arriving

Credit: London Heathrow Airport

It used to be that when someone said they were afraid to fly, what they really meant was they were afraid of crashing.

COVID-19 has changed almost everything in most people’s lives. It’s even changed what it means to be afraid to fly. And it’s done that in two parts.

First came the “afraid to fly because I might catch the virus while traveling in a small tube” syndrome. Now comes the “afraid to fly because heaven knows what will happen when I arrive.”

The aviation industry campaigned hard last year to counter the first fear, that it might be easier to be infected while flying. Data and videos and Powerpoints were rolled out demonstrating the extremely low levels of documented virus transmission and why that is the case: hospital-grade cabin HEPA filters, mask wearing, seat backs, stepped up sanitization and other industry-wide processes that likely make an airliner cleaner and safer than the average grocery store.

But the second fear, already far more prevalent in 2021, is much harder for the industry to counter.

As more countries react to second and third virus waves and the new virus variants with increasingly draconian travel restrictions, fewer people will fly. Not because they are scared of flying, but because they do not want the hassle or cost of what it takes to be allowed to go somewhere. 

The UK is about to insist on multiple COVID tests before flight, again on arrival and again after arrival; many passengers will also have to stay in government-approved hotels for mandatory quarantines at substantial cost. A family of four, should it still deem this travel necessary, could easily end up paying nearly $10,000 for the tests and hotel stays (ironically, they might do better to skip the quarantine and pay the maximum fine; it could work out cheaper).

The UK is not alone, of course. The skid toward highly unpalatable travel restrictions is almost global and almost certainly a move by governments to stop people traveling while not actually closing borders.

But the effect is the same. And if mandatory testing is brought into the US for all domestic flights, as seems to be under consideration, then Americans will stop flying not because of the flight but because of the cost and hassle of the tests.

Boeing has called on the White House not to expand international testing mandates to domestic travel. That’s a good call and it can be justified in science and data. 

Karen Walker

Karen Walker is Air Transport World Editor-in-Chief and Aviation Week Network Group Air Transport Editor-in-Chief. She joined ATW in 2011 and oversees the editorial content and direction of ATW, Routes and Aviation Week Group air transport content.


Asking people to present negative test before domestic flights can only reduce the risk of passengers on board. It is proved such risk is almost zero. Why then? Such person can travel by rail without any tests and with much higher risk for the people in the same wagon.
I fully agree the main fear for travellers by air is what requirements they can face at the airport of destination and also at the transfer point. It is a shame that EU was unable to achieve even a minimum unification of restrictions applied for passengers in the countries with similar COVID situation.
Saying that the 'air travel' experience can be any version of effectively safe, relative to disease spread, is self-serving exceptionalistic nonsense. The truth is, all our present conversations are about balancing dollars earned against lives lost. I understand the vicelike financial pressures. They are squeezing me. However, viral spread is immune to clever argument.