July 22, 2024

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Flight bookings soar past 2019 levels for spring

Flight bookings soar past 2019 levels for spring

In this week’s air travel developments, flight bookings for spring and summer are booming, with February sales beating pre-pandemic levels as higher demand and fuel costs spur concerns about air fare increases; Delta plans Oakland-Atlanta flights this summer, Air Canada is coming to Sacramento, and Spirit will add service at Reno-Tahoe; American plans to resume in-flight alcohol sales next month; U.S. blocks United Express/SkyWest from dropping service to 29 cities; international news from Singapore Airlines, Air Canada, Qantas, Delta, La Compagnie; U.K. airlines start to drop mask requirement for passengers; COVID-related entry restrictions are eased by the U.K., Canada, New Zealand, South Korea, France; Delta says more than half of its domestic customers now have access to satellite Wi-Fi; San Francisco prepares for new landing technology that should improve on-time arrivals during bad weather. 

A new study released this week found that flight bookings for spring are booming — a trend that several airline executives confirmed at an investment conference. The Adobe Digital Economy Index, which tracks online spending for airline tickets, reported that domestic flight bookings during February 2022 totaled $6.6 billion, a 6{6932ee47e64f4ce8eedbbd5224581f6531cba18a35225771c06e4f1b3f0d9667} improvement over February in the pre-pandemic year of 2019. During the second week of February, as COVID omicron cases were trending downward, domestic online ticket purchases showed an increase over 2019 for the first time. Adobe Digital Insights lead analyst Vivek Pandya said it was “a major turning point, and it shows a level of consumer confidence we’ve not seen in many months.” Adobe also reported on the top 10 U.S. destinations being booked for travel from March through May, a list that includes several traditional spring break favorites. No. 1 was Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport in Montana (gateway for Yellowstone National Park), followed by Fort Myers, Florida, Kona (on Hawaii’s Big Island), Pam Springs, Maui, Orlando, Tampa, Kauai, Pensacola and Honolulu. Although summer travel (June through August) is still months away, Adobe said, bookings at this point are only 3{6932ee47e64f4ce8eedbbd5224581f6531cba18a35225771c06e4f1b3f0d9667} below comparable 2019 levels — suggesting that it might be prudent to make summer reservations soon.

It’s not just online ticket sales that are booming. The Airlines Reporting Corporation, a clearinghouse for tickets sold through U.S. travel agencies, said this week that sales during February hit $5.4 billion, their highest level since February 2020, the month before the COVID pandemic started. 

The Adobe report noted that as demand increases, air fares in February of this year were 5{6932ee47e64f4ce8eedbbd5224581f6531cba18a35225771c06e4f1b3f0d9667} higher than the same month of 2019, although in January 2022 they were 3{6932ee47e64f4ce8eedbbd5224581f6531cba18a35225771c06e4f1b3f0d9667} below comparable 2019 levels. The higher fares in February were largely driven by an increase in demand, but as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led to a spike in global oil prices, some observers predicted that surging consumer demand coupled with higher fuel costs will mean a spike in air fares for the months ahead. At an investors conference in New York this week, airline executives from Delta, United, American, Southwest and JetBlue largely played down those concerns, suggesting that consumer demand for flights is so strong that the increased ticket revenue should cover most of their higher fuel costs, except for minimal price increases of less than 10{6932ee47e64f4ce8eedbbd5224581f6531cba18a35225771c06e4f1b3f0d9667}. All the participating executives reported seeing extremely strong pent-up demand from consumers for flights in the coming months, using terms like “higher than ever” and “unprecedented.” A Delta official said that his airline’s ticket sales on one day last week were the highest for any day in the company’s history, and an American executive said AA ticket sales set records on three days last week. While business travel and international bookings are still lagging behind 2019 levels, executives said, they expect to see a similarly strong revival for those markets as company offices continue to reopen and international destinations keep dropping their COVID-related entry restrictions. 

Could anything put a damper on COVID-weary travelers’ eagerness to get back in the sky? How about another global wave of coronavirus? Just as the omicron variant is disappearing and both governments and individuals are dropping their COVID precautions, public health officials are starting to sound alarms about a new omicron variant called BA.2 that is said to be considerably more transmissible than the original omicron variant. It already accounts for about a quarter of all new cases in the U.S. and is creating a new wave of infections in Europe and China. News headlines this week are warning that the COVID pandemic is far from over. “A COVID surge in Western Europe has U.S. bracing for another wave,” said the Washington Post. “Once again, America is in denial about signs of a fresh COVID wave,” the Guardian commented. Air travel bookings were on a similar upsurge when the omicron wave struck this winter, and then they retreated. The intensity of the potential BA.2 wave could make all the difference.

Delta airplane flies out of SFO.

Delta airplane flies out of SFO.


In California route news, Delta has scheduled an Aug. 8 start for daily flights from Oakland to its Atlanta hub, using a 180-seat 737-900. The airline previously announced plans to add service from Oakland to its Detroit hub on June 6; it already flies from OAK to its Salt Lake City and Los Angeles hubs. Meanwhile, Sacramento International confirms that Air Canada will bring back daily flights to Vancouver on June 1 after a 26-month suspension, using a 76-passenger, two-class CRJ-900. Spirit Airlines said this week its next expansion at Las Vegas will bring twice-daily flights between LAS and Reno-Tahoe starting Aug. 10, as well as new daily service from Las Vegas to Albuquerque beginning Aug. 3 and to Boise as of Aug. 5. Spirit previously announced new LAS routes to Memphis starting April 20 and to Salt Lake City beginning May 26.

American Airlines, the last major U.S. carrier still not serving alcoholic beverages in the main cabin, plans to drop that policy effective April 18. That’s the new expiration date for the federal government’s mask mandate aboard aircraft and other forms of public transportation. During the pandemic, AA and other airlines had stopped selling alcohol in an effort to minimize flight disruptions caused by unruly passengers, but many of those individuals were found to be carrying their own booze on board. Drinks on American will be free for Main Cabin Extra passengers (i.e., in AA’s extra-legroom coach seats); others will pay $8 for beer or $9 for wine and liquor. 

Last week, we reported that the regional carrier SkyWest, operating at United Express, told the Transportation Department it wants to stop flying from United’s hubs to 29 smaller cities around the U.S. — mostly in the middle of the country — in early June because it has such a severe shortage of pilots that it just can’t staff those flights. All the affected markets are operated as Essential Air Service routes, subsidized by the government to maintain air links to smaller communities. But this week, DOT told the airline it will have to keep operating on those 29 routes until replacement carriers can be found. The agency has asked other airlines to submit proposals for taking over the routes by April 11. 

Air Canada flies the 737 MAX 8 between San Francisco and Toronto.

Air Canada flies the 737 MAX 8 between San Francisco and Toronto.

Air Canada

On the international side, Singapore Airlines on June 1 plans to resume nonstop flights to Seattle six times a week. It currently operates to SEA via a stop in Vancouver in both directions, so Vancouver will get its own nonstop service after that date, also six times a week. As Australia and New Zealand reopen, Air Canada said this week it will increase its Vancouver-Sydney schedule to daily flights starting May 1 and will revive service from Vancouver to Brisbane on July 1 with four weekly flights, and to Auckland Nov. 10 with three flights a week. Qantas has been flying an Airbus A380 super-jumbo from Los Angeles to Sydney since January, but it hasn’t offered first class service on those flights; instead, it has been upgrading business class travelers into the first class cabin, according to Simple Flying. But on March 27, Qantas plans to bring back full first class service to the 14-seat A380 front cabin on the LAX-SYD route.

Across the Atlantic, Delta resumed seasonal service to Athens from New York JFK last week; it will do the same from Atlanta on May 5 and will introduce a Boston-Athens route May 27. The Athens service is part of a vastly expanded summer schedule to Europe this year that Delta said will include more than 510 flights a week, with its Premium Select cabin (i.e., premium economy) on almost all of them this year. From the West Coast, Delta’s summer schedule includes service from Seattle to Amsterdam, London and Paris, and from Portland to Amsterdam. The French all-business-class carrier La Compagnie, which flies from Newark to Paris and Nice, plans to introduce a new route from Newark to Milan Malpensa starting April 15, operating five flights a week with a specially configured 76-seat Airbus A321neo.

Passengers wearing personal protective equipment, including a face mask as a precautionary measure against COVID-19, walk through the arrivals hall May 9, 2020, after landing at Terminal Two of London Heathrow Airport in west London.

Passengers wearing personal protective equipment, including a face mask as a precautionary measure against COVID-19, walk through the arrivals hall May 9, 2020, after landing at Terminal Two of London Heathrow Airport in west London.

Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

As we reported last week, the Transportation Security Administration has extended its mask mandate for air travel and airports by another month, to April 18. But in the U.K., the masks are starting to come off at British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, and London’s Heathrow Airport. The two airlines said this week that mask requirements on the two airlines will be dropped on routes to and from nations that no longer require passengers to cover up their faces — but that does not include the U.S., where the TSA mask requirement remains in effect at least through April 18. The U.S. Senate this week passed a resolution calling on the Biden administration to end its mask mandate for air travel and other public transportation, but the House is unlikely to follow suit and the White House could easily veto the legislation. 

In an update this week on enforcement of the mask rule, the Government Accountability Office said TSA has proposed fines totaling $644,398 against 922 travelers for mask violations, almost all of them occurring on commercial aircraft or in airports, and has issued warnings to more than 2,700 individuals. TSA investigated a total of 3,800 incidents of potential mask violations since last year, and the average civil fine amounted to $699, GAO found. Those TSA fines are separate from the Federal Aviation Administration’s crackdown on unruly passenger incidents, most of which also involved refusal to wear a mask. Passengers refusing to wear masks as instructed accounted for 4,800 of the 6,800 unruly passenger incidents investigated by the FAA since last year — and those violations are considerably more expensive. The FAA has opened 450 investigations of unruly passengers and proposed fines totaling more than $5 million.

The mask rule changes in Britain come after the U.K. government this week eliminated the final vestiges of its COVID restrictions for travelers. It had already ended pre-arrival testing requirements for vaccinated individuals, and now it has ended testing for unvaccinated passengers and dropped a rule that inbound travelers had to fill out a passenger locator form. Passengers headed from the U.K. to the U.S., however, must still get a negative COVID test result no more than 24 hours in advance of their flight.

Other nations are also easing up on their entry restrictions. The Canadian government said this week that as of April 1, fully vaccinated travelers coming in by air, road or water no longer have to show a negative result on a COVID test taken before they enter the country. Canada defines “fully vaccinated” as having two COVID doses (or one of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine) but it does not require a booster. Visitors must also upload proof of vaccination in the government’s ArriveCAN website.

New Zealand is moving up its reopening date for vaccinated travelers from visa-waiver nations like the U.S. from this summer to May 1. Visitors must still provide a negative COVID test result but won’t have to quarantine after arrival. And South Korea will drop its mandatory quarantine for international visitors starting April 1 as long as they are fully vaccinated and register through the government’s website, which will give them a Q-code for scanning upon arrival. Visitors who got their last vaccination more than six months ago will be required to show they got a booster shot. And France has moved the U.S. onto its “green list,” which means that American visitors who were vaccinated within the past nine months (or who got a booster shot if it was longer than that) can enter the country with no other requirements, and unvaccinated Americans can gain entry with no further testing or isolation if they show evidence of a negative pre-arrival COVID test. 

In an update this week on its long-term effort to overhaul in-flight Wi-Fi service, Delta reported that more than 300 of its domestic mainline aircraft — including 127 A321ceos, 130 Boeing 737-900s, and many 757-200s — are now equipped with the new Viasat Ka-Band satellite Wi-Fi, which is “on average up to twice as fast as service offered in 2019,” the airline said. More than half of all domestic passengers now have access to the Viasat service, and Delta said the new technology should be available on nearly all its U.S. mainline planes by the end of this year as it installs the equipment on about 50 aircraft per month. Installations this year will include A321neos, A320ceos, A220-300s, A319s and Boeing 737-800s. Travelers can tell whether their aircraft has the faster Wi-Fi by looking for a decal on the outside of the plane as they board that says “Delta Wi-Fi — Faster streaming awaits,” or checking flight information during booking for an indicator of “New Wi-Fi” availability. 

The air traffic control tower is in sight Oct. 24, 2017, as a plane takes off from San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco. 

The air traffic control tower is in sight Oct. 24, 2017, as a plane takes off from San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco. 

Jeff Chiu/AP

San Francisco International Airport said it has received a green light from the Federal Aviation Administration to adopt a new landing technology called the Ground-Based Augmentation System (GBAS) that could facilitate bad-weather landings and improve on-time performance. The procedure requires the installation of a broadcast station on the airport grounds that gives pilots much more accurate location data than Global Positioning System satellites currently provide. “GBAS utilizes receivers and broadcast antennae to correct inherent errors in satellite-based GPS resulting from atmospheric conditions, minor clock errors and the position of the satellites,” the airport explained. “Using its highly accurate fixed position, it compares locational information from nearby satellites and produces a corrected GPS message which is broadcast to aircraft landing at SFO. Uncorrected, GPS is accurate to about 40 meters. With GBAS, the accuracy improves to within 2-3 centimeters.” Besides improving safety and bad-weather performance, the airport said, the GBAS system could also allow new landing procedures, “which could potentially reduce community noise by approaching at higher altitudes or further offshore.”