Freakonomics Radio, which offers a podcast of programs about ‘the hidden side of everything’ is tackling air travel in a three-part series called “Freakonomics Takes to the Skies.”
The series vows to investigate all aspects of airline economics by speaking with CEOs from Delta to Air New Zealand, economists, workers from pilots to meteorologists to flight attendant trainers to aircraft load agents, and – of course – passengers.
The United States began welcoming back vaccinated international travelers on November 8. Here’s how some airports around the country celebrated. (If I missed yours, please send a link and I’ll add it.)
(This is a slightly different version of a story we prepared for NBC News)
Starting Nov. 8, the United States will begin welcming welcoming fully vaccinated international air travelers, under a new less restrictive set of Covid-19 regulations.
The new rules require that, with very limited exceptions, non-U.S. citizens flying to the U.S. from more than 30 countries must be fully vaccinated and test negative for the coronavirus three days before they board their flight.
“For passengers who are not fully vaccinated, the rules will tighten to require a test taken no more than one day before departing to the United States,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement.
The CDC is also requiring airlines to collect contract tracing information from passengers boarding flights to the United States.
The relaxed restrictions are good news for a U.S. travel industry that has been hammered by the pandemic — and (mostly) good news for international travelers hoping to visit the U.S. for business or leisure.
Already, airline searches — and sales — for flights to the U.S. have spiked.
“We have seen an increase in ticket sales for international travel over the past weeks, and are eager to begin safely reuniting the countless families, friends and colleagues who have not seen each other in nearly two years, if not longer,” Nicholas Calio, president and CEO of airline trade association Airlines for America, said in a statement.
Along with increased tickets sales, though, come increased prices. The cost of an international flight is up by an average of 12 percent from last month, Adit Damodaran, economist for travel booking app Hopper.
“We expect international prices to rise another 15 percent from now until the holidays,” he said.
Travelers heading to the U.S. are likely to find crowded airports and long check-in lines.
Many airlines are still struggling with staffing and retraining issues, said Daniel Burnham, senior member operations specialist at Scott’s Cheap Flights. And because airline personnel will now be tasked with verifying vaccine records and Covid-19 test results at the check-in counter and collecting contact tracing information, “this will likely cause crowding in the early days of implementing these new rules at many European airports.”
What will happen to airfares and hotel rates?
“Travel searches on Expedia and Hotels.com have been simmering in anticipation of the borders reopening and came to a full boil the moment the U.S. pinpointed November 8,” said Melanie Fish of Expedia Brands. “Increased demand in 2022 is likely going to mean fewer travel bargains are out there.”
The bargains are likely to fade first at hotels in popular U.S. cities. “It’s expected that city hotels in the U.S. will be in high demand — a reverse in trend over the past 18 months,” says Misty Belles, vice president for global public relations at Virtuoso travel network. “So, say goodbye to low rates and flexible cancellation policies.”Cities such as Orlando, New York, and Seattle are excited to welcome back international visitors, who contributed significantly to local economies in typical, pre-pandemic years.
Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit Orlando, notes that the new requirements for vaccinated international travelers visiting the U.S are “especially valuable for families traveling with children under age 18, who will be exempt from the vaccination requirement and allowed entry as long as they meet the negative testing requirements.” That’s a plus for the theme-park-rich Orlando area.
Kauilani Robinson, director of public relations for Visit Seattle, said “we hope to see our international visitations climb back to pre-pandemic levels, but know it will take some time to get there since travel booked right now is largely cautionary travel and booked at the last minute. But we’re expecting to see that increase as we get into November.”
In New York City, international travel typically generates 50 percent of tourism spending and 50 percent of hotel room nights. “International visitors stay longer and spend more,” said Fred Dixon, president and CEO at NYC & Company, the city’s visitors bureau. “The decision to open international borders safely is the news we have been waiting for and the shot in the arm for our industry.”
There is not yet a universally recognized mobile travel pass or travel passport for vaccine and COVID-19 test results. But there are tools, to help travelers figure out what will be required of them at the check-in counter. These include Delta FlyReady, United Airlines’ Travel-Ready Center, and Verifly, which is used by American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, and others. IATA, the International Air Transport Association, has developed a Travel Pass currently recognized by more than 50 international airlines.
Bonus: Here’s a short spot we did for NBC News Now based on this story.
(This is a slightly different version of a story we wrote for NBC News)
Summer travel was the big bounce-back story for 2021, with Covid-weary American travelers spending $6 billion on domestic flights in June alone.
The delta variant of the coronavirus rapidly changed all that.
Domestic online flight bookings in July fell to $5.26 billion, a 13 percent decline from the previous month and 16 percent below 2019 levels, according to data from Adobe’s Digital Economy Index.
August numbers are falling even faster: In just the first three weeks of the month, August 1-21, $2.9 billion was spent online for domestic flights. That’s 33 percent below the same period in 2019.
The numbers show that “U.S. consumers are taking the Delta variant seriously and once again shifting their travel plans,” said Vivek Pandya, lead analyst at Adobe Digital Insights. “At the current rate, we expect spend in the month of August to be significantly under July.”
Reports from other parts of the travel industry tell the same story.
American Airlines said last week that August revenue was coming in lower than expected because Covid cases were driving down bookings. Other airlines, including Southwest, Frontier, and Spirit, have issued similar warnings.
Travelers changing plans, canceling trips
A recent survey of 1,000 American travelers by Longwoods International market research company showed that almost two-thirds of travelers surveyed said they are changing their trip plans because of the coronavirus, up from 43 percent two months ago.
In addition to travelers changing plans, Longwoods found that 36 percent of American travelers surveyed said they have postponed travel to either later this year or early next year, because of the delta variant. That is up 24 percent from just one month ago.
“The summer travel boom is at risk of stalling out as we move into fall,” said Amir Eylon, President and CEO of Longwoods International.
Fueling the drop-off is news that Hawaii’s governor is asking visitors not to travel the state right now and more cities are bringing back their mask mandates and requiring proof of Covid vaccinations to enter dining and entertainment venues.
“The late-summer drop-off in new flight bookings is happening sooner and sharper right now than it had pre-pandemic,” said Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights.
But Keyes says there is a silver lining. “This softening in new travel purchases is driving airlines to put their thumb on the scale and spur new bookings by slashing airfares to entice travel bargain hunters,” he said. “Airlines are also offering free flexibility to basic economy ticket holders for the rest of 2021, as United and Delta recently announced.”
What about Labor Day travel?
Looking ahead to Labor Day holiday weekend, domestic flight bookings are down 16 percent compared to Labor Day weekend 2019, according to Adobe.
Many travelers may choose to drive this holiday weekend, feeling safer in a private vehicle than on a plane or other form of public transportation. And while last year’s Labor Day weekend gas prices were the lowest since 2004, this year’s prices at the pump are expected to average $3.11 per gallon. That’s the highest since the summer of 2014, according to fuel savings platform GasBuddy.
“For the most part, people who were planning to travel are still taking their trips, while being mindful to take important safety precautions to protect themselves and others,” said Julie Hall, a spokesperson for AAA. “But with a resurgence of Covid-19 cases, it’s important that travelers remain informed and be flexible.