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As Coronavirus Lingers, the Sky Is the Limit for Outrageously Cheap Flights

Right now, professional flight finders can get you to L.A. for $20. But is it ethical to encourage spontaneous travel during a pandemic?

Secret Flying, a Twitter feed and website, is in the impulse vacation business. The company publishes dozens of low-cost flight deals every day, sourced from hundreds of different airlines and thousands of different destinations, so that its nearly 200,000 followers may take a break from reality to briefly fantasize about a weekender in Aruba.

Nothing hits quite as hard as the mania of cheap airfare. I know I’m not the only person who’s received a link from a friend to a juicy discounted rate, usually accompanied with a sheepish note like, “I know it’s crazy, but should we do it?” Secret Flying, and its contemporaries, empower that crucial function of millennial culture. Travel in the 2000s has witnessed an industry-wide reduction of ticket prices, a booming new sector of budget airlines and an evolving freelance professional class who, on a moment’s notice, can decide to spend next week in Porto.

That’s the beauty of a really sick airfare bargain: It feels like you’re breaking the rules, enjoying the high of a big score the second your credit card processes the payment.

So it’s ironic then that in 2020, with the coronavirus pandemic devastating the air travel industry and causing ticket prices to hit an all-millennium low, that cheap flight finders are fielding some of their first ethical questions: Is it responsible to advertise the vacations of the Before Times while large swathes of society remain under stringent stay-at-home orders? And because this pandemic was empowered by a modern democratization of travel, are we spreading the virus around by punching those tickets? It depends on who you ask.

Tom Williams, communications manager at Secret Flying, makes it clear that the company will continue to market every cheap flight they come across, even if that means shedding light on some of the starkest, scariest consumer opportunities left in the wake of the virus. The business says as much in its pinned tweet: “To those who ask us to stop posting deals, please keep an open mind that not everyone is in the same situation as you. Many people are trying to find a way home, or reach elderly relatives in case further lockdown restrictions are imposed.”

In particular, Williams tells me that Secret Flying is offering flight options as early as August, and some of those deals are truly unfathomable. In April, the company uncovered a $20 one-way trip from Miami to L.A., which is both an apocalyptic sign of the times and also a once-in-a-lifetime market fluctuation for any jet setter.

“It’s the domestic U.S. market that’s seeing the biggest reductions,” says Williams. That makes sense, considering that the country has seen a higher share of COVID infections than any other in the world. “Governments are opposed to nonessential travel. However, there are many people who still need to travel now, and we want to continue to help them throughout this difficult time,” he continues. “Remember, Secret Flying isn’t only used by people looking for a vacation.”

Still, Williams tells me that the majority of the flights Secret Flying is highlighting are scheduled for the winter of 2020, or even early 2021, which we all hope will be a time where the pandemic has reached a recessive stage. In general, Williams believes that at the moment, amid all this chaos, there lies a high-value opportunity to book long-term international travel. Prices are cheap, and if the date of your trip coincides with a substantial decline in the virus curve, your vacation can proceed as planned. If not, Williams expects airlines to continue to be flexible with their change and cancellation fees, limiting the risk.

Other cheap flight brokers, however, diverge from Secret Flying’s thinking. Scott’s Cheap Flights, perhaps the best-known company in this industry, annotates every email blast they send with a disclaimer, informing customers that they won’t be offering deals that depart in the next three to four months. SCF also focuses on airlines that agree to waive flight-change fees. The Flight Deal, which has a social media footprint comparable to Secret Flying, is doing something similar. At the dawn of the pandemic, says Flight Deal co-founder Matthew Ma, the company issued a moratorium on any deals before May. As the coronavirus continued to wreak havoc on global medical capacity, Ma pushed that deadline to July, and now, September.

“This virus is very contagious,” he tells me. “If you don’t take precautions when you go somewhere, your chances of getting it are pretty high. When you look at the antibody studies, so many people don’t even know that they have it. We decided that [publishing those deals] wouldn’t be great for anyone.”

Ma has made executive decisions like this before. Nothing compares to the sheer scale of coronavirus, but he recalls 2017, when a number of ultra-cheap flights to South America started popping up. The vast majority of those routes connected through Venezuela, which was in the middle of a seismic anti-government protest, putting the nation in danger of a total economic collapse. Simply put, The Flight Deal didn’t feel comfortable taking advantage of a volatile political situation in order to ferry tourists to Buenos Aires. “There are other things than trying to save $50,” he finishes.

That said, Ma is sure to underscore that he doesn’t want to scold any other budget flight curator if they’re choosing to offer deals throughout this crisis. If that’s what those companies have decided is best for their customers, he says, that’s their prerogative. Williams, at Secret Flying, tells me that while traffic is down on the company’s offerings, it hasn’t been a total structural collapse as some initially feared. Perhaps customers are reassured at some of the safety measures implemented by some airlines, like Delta’s decision to both remove the dreaded middle seat on their fleet and require everyone to wear a mask on board, rendering air travel a slightly more sanitary experience.

But Williams tells me that he sees plenty of people on Secret Flying who aren’t interested in booking anything in the short-term, but still enjoy browsing their offers for a sense of normalcy during an overwhelming era. “It gives them a positive feeling to be able to plan a trip for when times are better,” he adds.

I understand that inclination. If these past three months of quarantine have taught us anything, it’s that we must focus on little, lame, wistful pleasures to keep our heads above water. Chief among those creature comforts is staring at flight deals in the middle of a workday, tempting ourselves with impossible itineraries. You probably weren’t going to book that weekend in Aruba anyway, but now, more than ever, it’s nice to think about a world where you did.