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).
Global Business Travel Association doesn’t expect a full business travel recovery before 2025.
The expansion of low-cost carriers during the pandemic is likely to keep prices down.
“Leisure low-cost carriers will be back to 2019 levels this summer, maybe even a little bit higher,” said Savanthi Syth, an airline analyst at Raymond James & Associates.
Southwest Airlines plans to begin service to Myrtle Beach, S.C., this summer, one of 17 destinations it has added or announced in the pandemic, including Palm Springs, Calif., and Bozeman, Mont.
Spirit Airlines is adding St. Louis, Mo., and Milwaukee. Shortly after Feb. 23, when Spirit announced it would serve Louisville, Ky., a Hopper survey found competing fares from Louisville to Las Vegas went from $330 to $225 round-trip.
Breeze Airways and Avelo Airlines, expected to launch this year. “The more low-fare airlines, the more low-fare seats available to the public, not just on these airlines, but on carriers that compete with them.”
Flexible terms will tighten, as voucher dates loosen
During the pandemic, most airlines eliminated their cancellation and change fees (though Southwest never charged them), but the rules are changing for some of the cheapest fares.
By April, basic economy tickets at American and Delta will become nonrefundable and nonchangeable, as they were before the pandemic. United said it hasn’t decided whether to extend the waiver on basic fares past March 31.
Beginning April 1, JetBlue passengers buying the carrier’s basic fare will be subject to change and cancellation fees.
Ultra-low-cost carriers are also ditching waivers. Spirit is suspending fees on tickets booked only through the end of March. After March 31, change fees at Frontier Airlines will range from zero to $59, depending on when a ticket is changed.
Many travelers who had to cancel their plans since the pandemic have received vouchers for use on future flights that normally expire after a year. A study by TripActions, a business travel management company, found that 55 percent of vouchers for unused tickets will expire in 2021, and 45 percent in 2022.
The fight for refunds from pandemic-related cancellations continues. This month, Consumer Reports and U.S. Public Interest Research Group sent a letter to 10 airlines demanding refunds if requested — citing the nearly 90,000 refund complaints received by the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2020, representing 87 percent of all complaints about airlines — and an extension of voucher expirations to the end of 2022.