With holiday travel season on the horizon, a just-released annual forecast from Dean Headley, co-author of the Airline Quality Rating, offers new insights into making travel plans in these extraordinary times.

Given the pandemic, Headley, associate professor emeritus, W. Frank Barton School of Business at Wichita State University, expects airfare should be attractive leading into the holidays as airlines try to boost demand. Since air travel has been hovering around 30% of capacity in recent months, travelers have both “room and reason” to consider booking flights, Headley says.

At the same, he says, if travelers are looking to book now, they should consider how destinations and flight schedules may shift as the industry downsizes.

Newswise — More details and quotes are in Headley’s full forecast below:

“Holiday travel, whether to see family or just to get away for a little vacation, is what many Americans do during November, December and January. We like to move around the country and the world especially during the holiday season. With the current worldwide health concerns, it is clear that it is going to take a while for the flying public to feel comfortable with getting on an airplane to go anywhere.”

“With that concern in mind, U.S. airlines are doing a great job of implementing the COVID virus protocols. Social distancing, requiring facial coverings, disinfecting surfaces and cabin air quality are all being addressed by airlines for their passengers’ safety. With air travel at only about 30% of capacity, there are room and reason for the holiday traveler to seriously consider flying during the holiday season. Prices should be attractive, given the need for airlines to boost demand and get people in the seats.”

“Generally, travel during the holidays is the most congested time of the year. That may not be the case in these unusual times. Even with an increase in volume, the air travel system has room to absorb the increased passenger load and still perform well.”

Looking to the future, what changes might the person who flies maybe two or three times a year see in the airline industry?

The industry has some challenges ahead regarding the size of their operations during this unprecedented and extended time of low demand for air travel. Starting October 1, 2020, several airlines have announced that they will be laying off or furloughing thousands of pilots, cabin attendants and ground personnel. This ultimately translates to fewer airplanes and routes being available. In their attempt to bring costs and operating expenses down to match a drastically reduced demand for air travel, we will see a system that will have less choice and availability for travelers. On the plus side, a smaller system has historically always performed better regarding being on time and baggage handling.

Booking flights now, before the reduced system is known, is a choice that has potential headaches. While many of the airlines are waiving change fees, it does not matter about the fee if your flight destination is no longer available at any time. Waiting to book a flight may not cost more this year, but there is a real possibility of not being able to get where you want to go without added travel segments and travel time. Beyond the concern for safely traveling, the issues of fewer flights, altered schedules and dropped destinations should be considered when thinking about holiday travel.

What will the airline industry look like after this coronavirus pandemic?

“It's distinctly possible that some airlines could go under. Demand for air travel is hovering at around 30% of capacity and has been for months. Airlines are in serious financial straits right now. Since 9/11, our last serious reduction in air travel demand, we have had a lot of consolidation. I do not know how much more airline industry consolidation, bankruptcy or going out of business that this country can stand or that the flying public will tolerate. Choice is something that Americans tend to like, and right now we have a lot of choice in air travel for the most part. If we start losing airlines, I am not sure how the flying public will like that or that the economy can stand. Consumers will still fly, but this virus has seriously changed the way our country will function for a long time to come. Air travel and the economic impact of the air travel industry are a big part of that changed attitude.”

It took about two years for the industry to reach full flight function after the 9/11 downturn in demand. I would expect it will take longer with this prolonged crisis and demand reduction. Airlines and travelers are being cautious and for good reason. I think all parties will continue to be cautious about the return to flying and keep the public’s greater interest and safety in mind.

Some final thoughts

“You must be prepared to take care of yourself because while the airlines try their best, they cannot do that for you. You must be responsible for your own outcomes as much as possible. Social distance, wear a mask, wash your hands and use sanitizing solutions. Do not act out of fear, but act from a sense of personal responsibility for yourself and those around you.”

Some tips

  • Airlines do not guarantee their schedules, and you should realize this when planning your trip. Re-check the departure and arrival times of your flights a few days before your trip; schedules sometimes change.
  • Using a travel agent can help explore the changing options available. A small fee up front is often worth it when plans go wrong. Having an experienced travel agent on your side can help destress the situation and save the day.
  • When selecting a flight, remember that a departure early in the day is less likely to be delayed than a later flight, because of "ripple" effects throughout the day. If you book the last flight of the day, you could get stuck overnight. Allow plenty of time to make connecting flights. Leave extra time between connections if possible, just in case flights are delayed and flight schedules get changed.
  • If you have a choice between two connections and the fares and service are equivalent, choose the one with the less-congested connecting airport. This reduces the risk of misconnecting. Also consider potential adverse seasonal weather when choosing a connecting city.
  • It is wise to pay for airfare by credit card. It provides certain protections under federal credit regulations. When a refund is due, the airline must forward a credit to your card company within seven business days.
  • As soon as you receive your itinerary/confirmation, check to make sure all of the information on it is correct, especially your name, the airports (if any of the cities have more than one) and the flight dates. You will need to show a government-issued photo ID when you fly. It is important that your name as it appears on the ticket is the same as it appears on the ID you will be using.
  • Certain items should never be put into a piece of luggage that you plan to check in to the baggage compartment. Small valuables, cash, credit cards, jewelry or an expensive camera should not be placed in checked baggage. Critical items such as medicine, keys, passport, tour vouchers, business papers, manuscripts, heirlooms and fragile items such as eyeglasses, glass containers and liquids should be carried on your person or packed in a carry-on bag. Pack as light as possible. Ship packages or luggage ahead of time so last-minute schedule changes do not put your belongings at risk of being lost. Do not wrap presents before you travel.
  • At final check-in, verify that the agent checking your bags attaches a destination tag to each bag. Check to see that these tags show the three-letter code for your destination airport.
  • Check in early (as early as 24 hours is allowed online). You can lose your entire reservation if you are not at the gate 10-15 minutes before scheduled departure time on a domestic flight (longer on international flights). If a flight is oversold, the last passengers to check in are the first to be bumped, even if they have met the check-in deadlines.
  • For more information about how airlines perform, more travel tips, and advice about flyers rights, go to transportation.gov/airconsumer.

Given the stress of travel and the added COVID concerns and protocols, manners and consideration for other travelers’ shared space need to be part of the traveler's holiday spirit. Being a self-reliant, informed and prepared traveler is your best protection against the hassles of travel by air in these unprecedented times and circumstances.

The national Airline Quality Rating for 2021 (covering the performance results of 2020) will be released in spring 2021.

For information about the national Airline Quality Rating, go to airlinequalityrating.com.

Wichita State University serves as the Kansas urban-based research university, enrolling more than 20,000 students from every state in the U.S. and more than 100 countries. Wichita State and WSU Tech are recognized for being student centered and innovation driven.

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