Your holiday flight might be fuller than you’d expect, thanks in part to pandemic fatigue

People recognize that coronavirus numbers have been hitting records. But they’re booking more flights for the fall and winter holiday periods anyway.

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United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby says bookings have “flatlined a little bit’’ due to rising case counts and travel restrictions but that he still expects ”pretty strong’’ holiday travel.

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby says bookings have “flatlined a little bit’’ due to rising case counts and travel restrictions but that he still expects ”pretty strong’’ holiday travel. Other airlines also are optimistic.


Planning to fly somewhere for Thanksgiving or Christmas? Your flights might be fuller than you’d expect during a pandemic.

Airline after airline has reported encouraging holiday booking signs the past few weeks — a welcome boost during a year of devastating financial losses.

And airline executives appear confident ticket sales won’t dive like they did in early July amid an increase in cases of the coronavirus.

Budget carrier Allegiant Air told investors the blows from COVID-19 spikes have decreased throughout the year, a trend reported by other airlines, including giant Southwest.

“Based both on what our customers are saying and what our customers are doing, we see a clear divergence in terms of their attitudes toward the pandemic and their intentions towards leisure air travel,’’ said Scott DeAngelo, Allegiant’s chief marketing officer. “Customers believe the situation may once again be getting worse, but their leisure travel activity or their travel booking intent remains largely unchanged.’’

United CEO Scott Kirby said bookings have “flatlined a little bit’’ due to rising case counts and travel restrictions but that he still expected ”pretty strong’’ holiday travel.

More than seven months into the pandemic, some states still have travel quarantines remain in place. New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio has even urged residents not to travel out of state for the holidays for fear of inviting a second wave of coronavirus.

Dr. Allison Arwady, Chicago’s public health commissioner, has made a similar plea.

“I am not planning to travel this Thanksgiving unless we see significant improvements’’ in case trends, Arwady said at a news conference amid the reports of rising COVID-19 numbers. “I would encourage you — especially if you normally are getting together with people who are older or have underlying health conditions — to think seriously about whether this is the year for travel.’’

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t wavered from its longtime stance on travel during the pandemic. Its advice “Travel increases your chances of getting and spreading COVID-19. Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.’’

Airlines cite several reasons for their optimism while acknowledging that things could shift anytime.

Eight months into the pandemic, people are itching to go somewhere. Airline traffic is still severely depressed from normal levels, but passenger counts have been on the rise. American Airlines said 45% of its flights were more than 80% full in September, versus just 20% of July flights.

“We have seen signs of pent-up demand from customers who want to visit their family and friends or go on vacation,’’ JetBlue Airways CEO Robin Hayes said.

Another holiday travel demographic driving demand: college students heading home for break. 

“We think that traffic is going to hold up pretty well,’’ Hayes said.

He said JetBlue saw bookings over the summer fall as COVID-19 cases soared in the Sunbelt, but now, “We haven’t seen that yet.’’

Allegiant CEO Maury Gallagher’s take on the gradual return of airline passengers: “It appears pandemic fatigue is setting in.’’

Airlines have spent months trying to convince skittish travelers that flying is a relatively lower-risk activity, with the latest industry-sponsored study saying traveling on a plane poses less risk than grocery shopping or going out to eat.

They have hammered on the health and safety measures they are taking, touting the hospital-grade ventilation systems in their cabins, where the air is refreshed every two to three minutes. Airlines are mandating masks and banning passengers who flout the rules. Delta says it has added nearly 500 passengers to its do-not-fly list since May, United about 300. 

Airlines are also luring passengers back the old-fashioned way: with cheap tickets.

Southwest Airlines, which in pre-pandemic times launched just two major fare sales a year, has been running frequent sales, with one-way fares often starting at $39. Of course, prime holiday travel dates and times are largely blacked out, though the restrictions haven’t been as onerous as usual.

Alaska Airlines, where average fares were down 17% in the July-September period, had a buy-one-get-one fare sale in August and is running a promotion where travelers get a discount when Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson scores a touchdown.

American Airlines is confident enough in its holiday travel bookings that it’s holding out some seats for sale later on in hopes of charging last-minute bookers more. That’s a regular practice in the industry, but this year airlines haven’t been able to command much of a last-minute premium due to the plunge in demand.

“Right now, things are better than they were but far from sustainable,” said Vasu Raja, American’s chief revenue officer.

Read more at USA Today.

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