“Dreaming of summer?” the recent tweet from Frontier Airlines asks. “We can take you there. Fly from $11.”
Not to be left out, fellow low-cost carrier Allegiant sent an email this week advertising domestic late-summer deals as low as $24 each way. And in its own email, Southwest had this suggestion: “Set your sights on summer travel with a $49 fare.”
Cue the record-scratch sound effect. Do they mean this summer, age of the coronavirus pandemic, era of uncertainty about when most nonessential travel will return?
The short answer is yes.
“We know that people will have the need to travel in the near future and, as is our standard practice, we want to make it affordable and easy for them,” Sonya Padgett, a spokeswoman for Allegiant, said in an email. “That’s why, like most airlines, we are offering deals on fares.”
But the longer answer, according to airfare expert Rick Seaney, is that carriers are probably fishing around to find out what their customers’ interest is.
“It’s about, essentially, trying to look like it’s business as usual, but mostly, it’s about probing and getting more information,” said Seaney, CEO of travel data-science company 3Victors. “The more information they get, the better they’ll be prepared to deal with this.”
Because of the unprecedented nature of the pandemic, he said, airlines don’t have historic norms to help inform their forecasting.
“They can’t go back to the 1918 flu pandemic,” he said.
Air travel has plummeted compared with the same time a year ago, and airlines have slashed routes in response. Carriers have also introduced measures to make travelers feel safer, such as requiring crew and passengers to wear masks, highlighting enhanced cleaning and sanitation processes, and blocking off middle seats to keep people farther apart on planes. Frontier this week said it would guarantee an open middle seat for a charge, prompting a backlash on social media. Most airlines have also introduced more flexible policies around changing or canceling flights.
Cases of coronavirus have been reported in all states, and some areas are experiencing community spread of the disease. Travel increases the chances of getting and spreading coronavirus. The CDC recommends everyone stay home as much as possible, especially if a trip is not essential, and practice social distancing.
But some figures show that travel at least appears to be clawing back from the lows reached in April as many states start to gradually reopen and ease stay-at-home orders. According to the Transportation Security Administration, more than 130,000 people went through airport checkpoints on Monday. That’s down from 2.1 million a year earlier, but higher than the daily numbers for most of last month.
And according to hospitality research firm STR, hotels in the United States were more than 28 percent full for the week of April 28 to May 4. That’s still a huge drop from a year earlier, but higher than the previous few weeks. And the company noted that weekend hotel occupancy in areas that have eased some restrictions suggests some travelers are eager to get back to vacations.
“This past week was the first to show solid evidence of leisure demand as weekend occupancy grew in states that have significantly eased mitigation efforts,” Jan Freitag, STR’s senior vice president of lodging insights, said in a statement. “As we have noted throughout the pandemic, the leisure segment will be the first to show a demand bounce back. In weeks prior, the more reasonable conclusion was that hotels were selling mostly to essential-worker-types.”
Still to be seen: how much coronavirus infections might increase as more people resume semi-normal activities — and what that could mean for the summer.
Frontier CEO Barry Biffle said in an email that the airline is seeing business improve from the lowest point, when about 3,000 passengers were flying a day. That number has climbed back to about 10,000 a day — still way down from the norm of 80,000 daily passengers, mostly made up of travelers visiting friends and family and taking leisure trips. But, he said, the carrier expects to be back to about 70 percent of its original schedule by the end of summer.
“Consumers are reacting very positively to our current fare sale and are clearly willing to plan travel again, with an assurance that we are taking significant and appropriate measures to help ensure their well-being,” he said.
Southwest acknowledged that essential travel is the current norm, and a spokeswoman said the airline is limiting the number of seats that can be occupied to let passengers stay at a distance.
“As the world gradually transitions into flying again, we will continue our focus on offering low fares for customers,” spokeswoman Ro Hawthorne said in an email.
Seaney, who also co-founded the travel planning site FareCompare, said he believes “it’s pretty clear” that those who buy tickets for summer flights will need to exchange them for later trips.
“I don’t think they have a huge expectation for these marketing campaigns,” he said.
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