It’s spring break season, and airports are packed again as the number of people flying is roughly back to pre-pandemic levels.
An analysis of daily throughput data from the Transportation Security Administration shows that an average of more than 2.1 million travelers passed through airport security checkpoints each day for the past two weeks. This is only about 9% fewer people than during the same two-week period in 2019.
In fact, those traveling now may find it hard to believe that those same crowded airport terminals with long lines at check-in counters and TSA checkpoints were pretty much empty back then. two years ago; and had now blocked were flying with almost no passengers on board.
The vast majority of people thronging through airports these days are traveling domestically on vacation. Business and international travel, which is more lucrative for airlines, still lags behind.
Passengers may cringe at crowded airports, but airline executives are smiling at record revenues
While the return of the crowds may make some passengers cringe and yearn for those empty plane days, airline executives are smiling. “The demand (for domestic leisure travel) is higher than it has ever been,” exclaimed American Airlines CEO Doug Parker at the JP Morgan Industrials conference on March 15. The outgoing CEO (his last day was Thursday) told investors that the previous week the airline industry hit a one-day record high for booked revenue.
“And I can tell you at American we not only had our record breaking day, we had three days that were the best and highest ever,” Parker said. “Two of them were 15% higher than any day we’ve ever had.”
“There’s huge growth here,” Parker added.
And that claim is backed up by booking data from across the industry.
“We’re seeing a general level of excitement that’s driving bookings and that’s translating into this recovery hitting new milestones,” says Vivek Pandya, principal analyst for Adobe Analytics, which has been tracking airline booking data since before the start. of the pandemic.
Adobe measured direct-to-consumer transactions from six of the top 10 US airlines and more than 150 billion web visits and found that US consumers spent $6.6 billion in February to book airline tickets . Consumer spending is 6% higher than February 2019 and 18% higher than January this year.
Bookings began to increase when the surge in COVID-19 cases caused by omicron began to decline
Pandya says bookings really started to pick up when the sharp spike in COVID-19 cases caused by the omicron variant during the holidays started to wane. He says in late January and early February, “we were starting to see bookings increase quite significantly, and the second week of February we saw flight bookings return to pre-pandemic norms and kind of cross that threshold (at the above 2019 levels), which was a pretty big step for us to take.”
Pandya says the surge in the number of travelers booking flights continues, even as airfares increase.
“At the moment we have seen prices go up, but that hasn’t really dampened the momentum of air travel,” Pandya said. “What we’re seeing is that bookings are up 26%, then airline spending and airline bookings, revenue is up 42% compared to certain periods in 2019.”
Pandya says airlines are seeing strong sales, although bookings for business and international travel are still lagging behind.
“So what we’re really seeing is a huge increase in leisure travel and consumers basically wanting to go back to the kind of vacation travel they were doing before the pandemic,” Pandya says.
Consumers continue to book travel, driving fare prices high as airlines still have limited capacity
Economist Hayley Berg of mobile travel app Hopper sees similar trends.
“Demand for air travel, both domestically and internationally, is significantly higher this year than it was in 2021,” Berg said. “We’ve seen a continued increase in demand for air travel since really January, year-to-date, and that’s continued through these spring months.”
Berg says consumers are continuing to book travel even as airfares continue to rise, and that increased demand, at a time when airlines still have somewhat constrained capacity, is part of what drives up airfares.
“But also (rising) jet fuel prices” are pushing airfares up significantly, Berg says, noting that between Dec. 1 and March 8, the price of jet fuel per gallon more than doubled from $1.88 $ to over $4.10, and has fluctuated fairly little since.
She says higher jet fuel prices will likely continue to push rates up, at a rate of 7% per month, during the busy summer travel season. But Berg says with the removal of many COVID-19-related travel restrictions, people are eager to get out and fly again.
“I expect that if we continue to see higher prices, we’ll probably continue to see higher demand,” Berg says, “because travelers have been waiting to take some of these list trips for, you know, the summer of 2019 and 2020.”
When it comes to travel abroad, and particularly to Europe, Berg says, as the surge in COVID-19 infections has subsided and more European destinations have dropped coronavirus-related travel restrictions. COVID, international travel bookings have increased sharply, but she adds that those searches and bookings have since declined.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in demand similar to what we’ve seen for domestic travel since January, and that’s leveled off since about mid-February,” Berg said.
It is no coincidence that Russia invaded Ukraine.
Adobe Analytics’ Vivek Pandya says a protracted war in Ukraine could further delay the stronger return of international travel that airlines need to bolster their bottom line.
“It’s certainly a concern when the kind of global political and war situations and those, those factors drive decision-making, especially when it comes to international travel,” Pandya said.