It might seem like a lifetime ago since you last flew. Many frequent flyers are staying on the ground in 2020 and perhaps taking a road trip instead. Even so, more people are flying now than during the opening weeks of the pandemic. But are airline travel volumes continuing to increase?
Airline Travel Bottomed In April
Airlines were the least busy in April 2020 when the daily number of TSA checkpoint screenings reached their lowest levels. April 22, 2020, is the last day of fewer than 100,000 screenings (98,968 to be precise).
Since the mid-April low, the daily screening numbers have been gradually rising but appear to be at a plateau. In June, there were 353,261 daily screenings to start the month and as many as 633,810 to end the month. For August and September, the daily number of screenings has been as low as 516,068 on September 1, 2020.
The busiest flying day since the travel shutdowns began in mid-March was on September 4, 2020, with 968,673 screenings due to Labor Day weekend travel. For perspective, most travel days in 2019 had between 2.0 million and 2.6 million screenings.
Approximately up to one-third of the number of passengers are flying versus the same flight dates in 2019. Traffic volumes are slowly picking up, but a July 2020 press release from the International Air Transport Association doesn’t expect a full global air travel recovery until 2024.
Travel volumes may continue to increase some, but it looks like airline traffic is holding steady for the time being. Airlines are planning service reductions starting in August to adjust to the lower traffic volumes.
What’s Behind The Low Traffic Volumes?
There are several factors behind the flying slowdown that must change for traffic to rebound.
Domestic Airlines Are Cutting Routes
With the initial anticipation of a quick rebound of “normal” travel volumes again evaporated, airlines are cutting costs and potentially laying off employees, starting in October. Smaller low-traffic airports are receiving the largest brunt, and some alternate airports may only be serviced by one carrier until volumes pick up.
A $25 billion airline bailout from the March 2020 CARES Act stimulus package required airlines to postpone layoffs and deep service cuts through September 2020. But as October 1, 2020, rolls closer, airlines are updating their service plans for the fall.
There is talk of a second $25 billion airline bailout that will aid the major U.S. carriers this fall. This measure will need to pass the U.S. Senate and U.S. House for President Trump to sign. Whether or not a second bailout happens, domestic carriers are taking some cost-cutting measures.
On August 20, 2020, American Airlines announced a suspension to 15 smaller airports starting October 7, 2020. The suspensions will last through November 3, 2020, and potentially later.
United Airlines is flying 46% of its October 2019 domestic schedule and 33% of its October 2019 international schedule. Despite these low figures, the number of planned flights are a little higher than in September 2020. As Hawaii may officially reopen on October 15, 2020, United is offering flights to Hawaii.
Southwest Airlines is only flying 65% of its regular October schedule. Many of the October flight cuts are from Dallas-Love Field. The good news is that Southwest is still servicing its 89 domestic destinations and is adding international routes as travel restrictions ease.
International Travel Restrictions Persist
Flying outside the United States is impractical or even impossible for most leisure travelers due to travel restrictions. Many nations, including Canada, are only letting passengers arrive for essential business or to visit a qualifying immediate family member. Many other places require a 14-day self-quarantine or the duration of your stay, whichever is shorter. Not being able to leave your hotel room for your entire world tour isn’t a vacation for many.
Airlines are flying to select Mexican and Caribbean beach destinations that don’t require a mandatory quarantine. But the Caribbean islands are likely to require a valid negative PCR test before arrival to gain entry to the island.
“Resort bubbles” are one concept that can entice more international leisure travel. While you must stay within the resort limits, you can enjoy the fresh air and beach for your entire stay. The Maldives are using this method to welcome tourists.
Business Travel Is Going Virtual
Traveling for business is going to take some time to rebound. United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby believes that it will take some time for business travel to return.
Before the pandemic, it was common to see airliners remodeling their fleet to have more business and first-class seats. This trend may continue if premium cabin flight demand regains popularity, but also because it’s easier to socially distance.
For now, many high-profile business conferences are going online-only, including February’s iconic CES 2021, that lets the public see the latest tech gadgets up close. There’s also an uptick in businesses chartering private jets to travel for the executive meetings that cannot occur using Zoom.
Travel Confidence Remains Low
Many factors are influencing people not to fly. One of the largest reasons is that people want to avoid public places like airport terminals and airplanes where close contact with strangers is more likely. Instead, people are renting RVs and taking a road trip. Despite the slower travel pace, you can stay self-contained and avoid dense areas.
Airlines are taking some measures to boost travel confidence, including:
- No change fees
- Keeping the middle seat clear on most flights
- Wearing a face mask mandatory for all passenger and crew
- Reduced in-flight amenities
Some factors remain out of airliners’ control, including high unemployment levels and the economic uncertainty of adjusting to a world where social distancing is the norm is causing people to delay their travel plans.
Many suggest that air travel may not fully recover until a viable vaccine arrives. In the interim, we see more states with a mandatory quarantine accept a negative PCR test to waive the quarantine, making leisure and business travel possible.
Airline traffic volumes are higher now than during the spring. However, only a fraction of passengers are flying versus pre-pandemic levels. As long as travel restrictions and some degree of economic uncertainty remain in place, domestic and international travel might have a gradual recovery. But, a sudden surge in new case counts as winter approaches may delay progress.
Are Airline Bookings Increasing?
Yes, airline bookings have been increasing for the summer and early fall months of 2020. Airlines offer a few more routes for October 2020 versus September 2020 as more states ease their travel restrictions. However, it’s too soon to tell if there will be a reintroduction of travel restrictions and flight cancellations if the national or global health situation worsens for the late fall and early winter months.
What Is The Least Busy Day Of The Week For Air Travel?
Wednesday is typically the least busy day to fly, followed by Tuesday in 2020. Saturday tends to be the least busy weekend day to fly. There can be exceptions for holiday weekends, though.
Can I Pick Up My Plane Ticket At The Airport?
Airlines prefer that you use a digital boarding pass to reduce physical contact. However, it’s still possible to get a paper ticket. If you’re not checking a bag, the airline may have a self-serve kiosk in the airport terminal pre-security. When checking a bag, the desk agent can provide a paper boarding pass if the kiosk doesn’t check bags as well.