Following a massive drop in demand when the pandemic struck, airline traffic in the U.S. has been growing and in the summer of 2021 the industry carried a lot of leisure customers. When the summer ended, traffic slowed as is seasonally normal, but the lack of quick pick-up in business travel has caused concern as to when the industry will truly be back to some kind of normal. Business travel requires that people be in offices to visit, and that trade shows are in fact happening, and that people are comfortable being in groups for meetings and meals.
The end of the year brings two holiday periods that tend to drive a lot of leisure travel. Thanksgiving, the uniquely popular holiday in the U.S., is an important time for extended families to get together or for individual families to spend time together giving thanks and watching sports. The end of the calendar year brings people together to celebrate their faiths and make plans and resolutions for the new year. These winter holidays are good opportunities for the airline industry to fly more flights, serve more customers, and improve from the summer’s operational missteps. The holidays should be strong for five key reasons:
The Summer Experience
In the summer of 2021, the U.S. airline industry had a lot of demand but wasn’t always ready for it. Families showed that they were ready to get out of the house and go have fun, and so while airlines put out a lot of capacity as demand soared, the ability to operate all these flights proved problematic and many airlines suffered from operational challenges.
This shortfall in execution does not diminish the strong demand for leisure and discretionary travel. Noticeably absent in the summer was any significant amount of business travel. This reality also contributed to the unfortunate increase in onboard skirmishes, some of which became violent. Yet the underlying need for people to move, especially for leisure purposes, proved resilient and rebounded strongly following a 2020 when most people just stayed home. The challenge now is how to handle similar increases in demand but ensure that the operations are ready.
More Vaccines Makes Everyone More Comfortable
Despite the noise around people fighting vaccine mandates, now almost 200 million people in the U.S. are vaccinated. When considering that those under 12 still can’t be vaccinated, this makes travel likely since most of the people you’ll see will have at least one shot. So, by being smart and wearing masks in crowds, there is no reason that travel can’t happen and families will likely be comfortable getting together.
The emergence of boosters and news of an upcoming pill to treat the virus are also encouraging in terms of people feeling that they can be safe when traveling. Given that holidays are largely family events, hotels will of course be used but not in every trip so some will find it even easier.
A Lot Of People Seem Fed Up
Based on both anecdotal evidence and some survey data, vaccinated people are fed up with being held back. The vaccinated feel they’ve “done it right” and shouldn’t have to suffer through restrictions, mask-wearing, and limits on activities. When Dr. Anthony Fauci said it was too soon to determine if would be safe to gather for Christmas, the NY Post ran a photo of Fauci as Scrooge and a headline that said “Shut Up, Fauci, We Don’t Need Your Permission To Celebrate A Holiday.” Even without that crude response, Fauci’s comments made many people cringe. In most areas of the country, you can eat indoors in a restaurant, many plexiglass dividers are no longer there, and most children are back in a real school. People, especially those vaccinated, feel that they are protected so why should they have to be held back? This feeling will likely encourage people to book trips to see family or just for fun, because they are vaccinated or feel comfortable because they have already survived the virus.
Make Up For Last Year’s ‘Zoom Christmas’
Zoom Christmas became a term last year when many people knew it wasn’t safe to get together with a lot of people over the holidays. Vaccines were not available yet, and guidance was clear and largely followed, with staying safe meaning staying home. No doubt that this was unsatisfying for many people, even though they knew it was the right thing to do. One year later, with vaccines widely available and many things looking normal again, most people are excited to leave Zoom Christmas behind, get on an airplane or in a car, and gather with family and friends. For these important social holidays that happen only once a year, it is a bridge too far for most people to stay home again.
Airlines Are Ready And Prices Are Good
Airlines know that the holiday periods this fall are the last chance the sun will shine to make this hay. With business travel not back in any meaningful way, airlines are building up their schedules for Thanksgiving and late December and have the lessons of the difficult summer still in their front memory. Fares are still attractive to most destinations, though if bookings accelerate expect these to rise somewhat. The recent flight cancellations by Southwest Airlines not withstanding, airlines have learned from this summer and likely are better matching flights offered to staff and crew availability so that the holidays aren’t marred by operational mess-ups. And with supply-chain breakdowns, a phrase not used in common speech until the last few weeks, what better way to ensure that your gifts arrive than to hand-deliver them?