Travel is making a comeback–just not by plane

Data from Descartes Labs reveals mobility is greater than 80% of the pre-COVID baseline in most states.

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Image: Descartes Labs

Americans' appetite for travel is starting to return, although not surprisingly, they are taking road trips instead of getting on a plane. Mobility data from Descartes Labs' has found that in many states, residents have begun traveling at nearly the same rate they were traveling before COVID-19–just by car.

"The steep drop in air travel in late March matched the overall reduction in mobility we measured," said Mike Warren CTO and co-founder of Descartes Labs. "Since then, we've seen mobility recover to greater than 80% of the pre-COVID baseline in most states, but airport traffic is trending up more slowly."

While the data provides clear insights into what people are doing, it doesn't explain why they are making those choices, Warren said. "Is it because it is safer to drive than to fly? "It would be great to know that for sure, but we don't, because the data about how people are getting infected isn't available."

SEE: The 8 best travel gadgets to take your road trip to the next gear (TechRepublic)

Descartes tracks data from a small subset of phones from people who have opted into location tracking anonymously, Warren said. "We're not able to track individual devices but we can tell in the aggregate how far people are going from where they start the day," and then Descartes uses the median of distance traveled, he said.

Other recent mobility data Descartes Labs gathered revealed:

  • Despite a slight bump on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, airport traffic remains very low, but mobility is approaching normal levels. This indicates people are driving, not flying. 

  • Big spikes are occurring as states reopen, suggesting quarantine fatigue has set in and people are eager to get out despite uncertainty

  • Decreased mobility around weekends nationwide

  • Reopened states like California have seen a week-over-week rise of nearly 30%

  • While everyone in the US is trending in the same increasing direction travel-wise, the infection rate is not, so there aren't clear factors on how COVID-19 is spreading from state to state.

For example, Arkansas saw a 253% increase in infection from the first 15 days of May compared to the last week of May and first week of June, but mobility only increased 8% over the same period, Descartes said.

Mobility in Nebraska increased 21% from the first 15 days of May compared to Memorial Day weekend into the beginning of June; however, COVID-19 cases have been on a steady decrease since then, according to the labs.

On the flip side, Arizona saw a 109% increase in mobility from the first 15 days of May compared to Memorial Day weekend into the beginning of June; over the same period, there was a 139% increase in COVID-19 cases.

Texas saw a 32% increase in mobility from the first 15 days of May to Memorial Day weekend into the beginning of June; over the same period, there was a 35% increase in COVID-19 cases.

As others have pointed out, people may be driving instead of flying because driving gives them a greater sense of control over their surroundings, Warren said. However, it has been noted that people are actually less likely to follow hygiene protocols over the course of several stops on a long drive.

One reason people are avoiding flying is that it's hard to predict how full a flight might be or how much you'll be able to socially distance from other passengers and employees, even as airlines make efforts to minimize close contact.

Descartes' mobility data also found that some major airports started to see declines as early as the last week in February and then most of the 85 US airports they track experienced a large drop-off by mid-March, Warren said.

"One interesting feature is states that currently have the lowest mobility index were those hardest hit by the earliest part of the pandemics," such as NY, NJ, and counties around Seattle, Washington, he said. Even though "they needed to react strongly early on, they have remained with lower mobilities even with their recoveries," he said.

This is an indication people are taking social distancing measures more seriously "where they've seen their friends and neighbors dying," Warren said, and are probably staying closer to home.

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