A new luxury airline is beckoning wealthy vacationers while health officials push for tighter restrictions on nonessential travel.
Aero, a luxury semi-private jet company launched by Uber founder Garrett Camp, sent its first flight from Los Angeles to Aspen, Colorado, last week, and plans to roll out international destinations in the coming months—in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Catering specifically to leisure trips, Aero is branding itself as the emerging “travel method of choice amongst the who’s who.” Its sleek black planes boast “lavish interiors” with suede walls, “sophisticated art lighting,” and hand-stitched Italian leather seats. Aero also has private terminals so passengers can avoid lines.
At a time when legacy airlines are laying off workers and sponging up government bailouts, Aero’s promotional materials herald a “renaissance of luxury travel.”
“It just so happens that we might have built the perfect product for COVID,” CEO Uma Subramanian told VICE World News.
“Of course we did think about holding off, but then we actually said this is the best time to do something new.”
Subramanian, an aerospace engineer, said the planes are designed to offer virus-free flights. Seats are spaced about 6 feet apart in single file, allowing 16 passengers per plane. Everyone is required to take a pre-flight COVID-19 test, and to wear a mask for the ride.
But Dr. Kelley Lee, director of global health studies at Simon Fraser University, said those measures aren’t going to stop the virus from spreading.
“It feels a bit tone-deaf,” said Lee, who studies and compares pandemic responses around the world.
Lee said there is no safe way to travel at this stage of the pandemic, especially with new variants emerging that are significantly more contagious. The U.S. has some of the weakest travel measures, and the country’s infection numbers reflect that.
“We’re all fed up. We all want to go to Hawaii and lie on the beach. I get that, because we’re a year in and we keep getting told what we cannot do,” Lee said.
“It really isn’t the time to be moving people around. If we can stay as close to home as possible, that is the way we’re going to get through this pandemic.”
Lee said pre-flight COVID tests are not a silver bullet, because a person can “be very well infectious” but have the virus in an amount that’s too small to be picked up on a test. Even if the flights were virus-proof, there are risks travelling to and from the airport and mingling at vacation destinations.
As people continue to take leisure trips against the advice of health officials, countries are increasingly using financial deterrents to discourage them.
The Canadian government ruffled feathers last month by announcing travellers arriving in Canada by air would have to pay for three-day quarantined hotel stays, costing upwards of $2,000 per person.
Australia and New Zealand mandate 14-day paid stays at government-approved facilities, the U.K. is moving to require 10 days, and travellers arriving in Hong Kong have to pay for three weeks.
While these strategies have reduced unnecessary travel, they have also created a market where flying is only accessible to those with deep enough pockets to shell out for a vacation and still have thousands left for a quarantine.
Lee said jet-setters are delaying pandemic recovery for the rest of us.
“We’re paying for people going out and coming in and bringing the virus in. It keeps getting re-seeded and spread about… It’s just that small group (travelling) because the policies allow them to do it. And that feels unfair,” she said.