If the start of spring break is any indication — when an average of more than a million fliers a day passed through security at U.S. airports — domestic summer travel is poised to pop. Airlines have been expanding their route networks, especially in vacation destinations, as competition for leisure travelers heats up. Leisure travelers are expected to lead the recovery as business travel continues to lag.
Here are five things we know about flying this summer.
The skies will be busier, the planes fuller.
According to the airline industry group Airlines for America, passenger volume on U.S. carriers was down 53 percent in mid-March compared to pre-Covid-19 levels, but up from the darkest days of the pandemic, when it bottomed out below 90 percent. With the soft bounce, only Delta Air Lines has continued to block middle seats through April. It would not comment on an extension. (Alaska Airlines is keeping middle seats open in its Premium Class through May 31). “My expectation is that Delta is going to get rid of the blocked middle seat policy,” said Henry Harteveldt, president of the travel consultancy Atmosphere Research Group, citing continuing vaccinations for building traveler confidence and competition from other airlines. “Delta realizes it will have to compete more on price than in the past.”
Though the average plane in recent weeks has been about 64 percent full, summer is looking busier. The airfare app Hopper found searches for domestic travel rose nearly 60 percent for summer travel since Feb. 20, comparable to inquiries in Jan. 2020, before the pandemic. Helene Becker, an airline analyst at the investment bank Cowen, forecast domestic leisure travel this summer to grow to within five percent of prepandemic levels. In comparison, business and international travel will remain 80 to 90 percent off. “People are sick of this paradise prison in their homes,” Ms. Becker said. “I think we’ll see what I call a jailbreak this summer.”
Higher airfares are headed into low-cost headwinds
With more people traveling, airfares will go up, according to Peter Belobaba, who researches the global airline industry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But travelers can expect prices to yo-yo as airlines carefully manage seat pricing. “It’s difficult to get a cheap fare to Honolulu on a Friday, but it’s pretty easy to get a low fare to Boise on a Tuesday morning,” he said.
Hopper predicts summer airfares to increase by about 12 percent in May but to stay low, with the average domestic round-trip flight estimated to top out around $257 in midsummer, compared to about $230 now. But without business travelers who tend to spend more and fly more, airlines will lack the power to raise fares significantly. The trade organization Global Business Travel Association doesn’t expect a full business travel recovery before 2025.