Think back, if you can, to your pre-pandemic self. And how annoying were certain aspects of the flying life.
Remember sold-out flights? (What do you mean I can no longer get to Jackson Hole on December 20?) Ticket price fluctuations? (How dare they raise the price so much from one day to the next?) The near impossibility of purchasing tickets with your miles for a flight you want, when you want it? (I’ve almost stopped trying…)
There’s more: Steep change fees; lack of aisle and window seats; the scrimmage to find overhead space for your carry-on; the risk of getting bumped; take-off delays as planes idle on the tarmac, awaiting their turn in line; airline meal service (much ado about nothing, right?); long luggage carousel waits (and lost bags); and the odds (admittedly low, but memorable if you draw the short straw) of finding yourself on a flight with a”support” pig (or armadillo) in the seat next to yours.
The colossal disruptions of the pandemic have eliminated all that—a consumer-friendly by-product of Covid-19, if you will. The pumpkin has been turned into a chariot. Like all such chariots, however, it has an expiration date, and some of the irritants, will, over time, return. But if you’ve had your shots or are otherwise comfortable flying, this year may just be your moment to travel.”In fact, for the next 12 to 18 months, if you’re traveling for leisure, the world is your oyster,” says Paul Tumpowsky, airline specialist and CEO of Skylark, the high-tech-plus-human-touch luxury travel agency.
I heard him speak at a travel-industry leaders’ conference and subsequently interviewed him for details. Here are the problems we’ve long faced as fliers, and why, for the time being, they no longer obtain:
Lack of Seat Availability
“Gone. There are seats on planes simply because there are so many fewer people traveling. Seats are available even to destinations for which demand is high now—like Miami, Mexico, and the Caribbean. And they are usually available even if there is only one plane a day going to those places. The problem of being shut out of flights has disappeared.”
Lack of Mileage Seats
“Just as there are more seats on planes, so there are a lot more mileage seats. And it’s a better market for redeeming miles and points than ever. Our general position at Skylark is that you should try and use these things whenever you can, because they are constantly being devalued and often are very, very difficult to use when you want to use them. And it just so happens that in our current environment, you can get a lot of flying without spending a lot of points. On two recent trips to the Caribbean—St. Barths in December and Anguilla in February—I spent less than 60,000 miles total for a family of three, for both trips combined. Depending on where you’re going, the seats are just there. You’d be surprised. Austin and Santa Fe this summer? There are very inexpensive mileage seats even on nonstop flights.”
“We used to see massive fluctuations as airlines managed revenue based on demand—the more people wanted to fly somewhere at a specific time, the higher the price would go. We’ve all had the experience: You’re researching a flight, you come back the next day to book, and the price has jumped. But two things are happening now:
“One, the much less price sensitive business traveler is just not there, so the airlines need to keep fares low and affordable for the general consumer. In the past, an airline would be willing to give up having five fliers paying $200 in order to have one flier paying $1,000. But that $1,000-flier is just not there for now because there is no corporate travel.
“Two, the sudden spikes in demand are not there either—for spring breaks, say, or for unexpected events like sports playoffs. It’s not like a lot of people all at once want to get to a game; you can’t go to games. So the airlines are simply looking to fill as many seats as possible. And that means keeping prices steady.”
How long will pricing stay this way?
“There are several factors in play. There are still plenty of pilots, crew, and planes sitting on the sidelines. As they get introduced back into the system, there will be more’inventory’ and this will keep pricing for consumers relatively low. The flip side? At some point, corporate travel will come back. There has been discussion that it never will, that Zoom has changed the world, or that it will come back at 50 percent. I don’t see either of those things happening. I see business travel coming back somewhere between 50 and 75 percent over the next 12 months, then returning to 75 percent plus after that. Because there will be more remote working, business travel will change. There will be more small-group business events at first, and at some point the big events will resume. I don’t know when. But I think that once a majority of the American public is vaccinated, people will be actively on the move—probably in the second half of this year. Provided they feel comfortable. And that will begin to precipitate price fluctuations.”
“Everyone has waived changes fees on everything. There are two reasons why all the airlines have to do this:
“One, they are themselves cancelling and changing routes and flights—frequently, in a way they never have in the past. You used to be able to know flight schedules 13 months in advance. Now, on certain routes, you’re lucky if you know 3 months in advance. Under these circumstances, if an airline said,’You have to commit to firm plans far in advance,’ no one would buy a ticket. They have to be flexible simply from a consumer sales point of view.
“Two: Airlines really do not want people showing up at the airport with a fever and coughing. And if they told someone,’You have to pay a $200 change fee even if you get sick with Covid,’ that person is going to show up at the airport. So from a public health standpoint, the notion of’stay at home, please, and we’ll waive change fees,’ is just common sense.”
How long will these fees be waived?
“I believe that things will stay the way they are until airlines start to add more planes, there is more flight capacity, and more friction develops from people wanting to move around and change flights. Some airlines have said that they will never bring back those fees—I doubt that. I think we won’t see them for the next 12 to 18 months. After that, they’ll be back in some shape, way, or form.”
Fare Changes on Top of Change Fees
Video: DOD, United Airlines say masked passengers ‘extremely unlikely’ to catch COVID-19 (FOX News)
“Gone as well. Used to be that if you bought a ticket to visit your family in Italy in September, and then decided to fly instead in October or December, you’d be dealing with a whole new fare structure. No longer. Some airlines flying internationally are now basically saying that so long as you bought a ticket, you have a seat, and you can change your flight date without worrying about additional expenses if the fare has changed in the meantime. Everyone sees risk in booked future travel, and especially in international travel. No one is really sure of their plans. My sense is that the airlines are looking for virtually every mechanism they have in their toolbox to be able to say to you,’Please give us your business, we will be totally flexible.’ They need to do these things to get people to commit, and it’s a really nice benefit. That trip to Italy? The airlines are saying,’plan on going in September, and if you can’t, you’ll go in October for the same price—sounds fair?’ To me, that sounds fair.”
No Isle or Window Seats
“On Delta at least, there are plenty of aisle and window seats. That’s all they’re selling. The airline has decided to make safety their story domestically and they are happy about how they are being perceived. (Skylark has partnered with Delta since the inception of our business.) But I’m actually not at all sure that it matters where you sit. There is a huge amount of data that shows that the HEPA filtration systems on planes are doing their job, capturing at least 99.7 percent of airborne microbes, and that the up-in-the-air part of air travel is actually very safe. It was evidenced for decades during past viral outbreaks in Asia. So to a certain extent, everything else is a lot of theater.
“And consider this: If you’re traveling anywhere internationally now, even just going to the islands, everyone on that plane has been tested for Covid in the three days before boarding. Statistically speaking, that population is virally quite clean—certainly relative to what you might experience at Whole Foods, or anywhere else. So it’s a very narrow population, in a highly controlled environment. Sure, there could be some exposure. But we are going to see more and more flights where the vast majority of the people on board are also vaccinated—just based on their age and where they’re going. There will be a lot more comfort.”
“I think they are here to stay.”
“I’ve long had my suspicions that the reason people hustle so much to get onto planes is not so much to get to their seats—those seats aren’t going anywhere, they’re assigned—but to be able to stash their carry-ons near where they’ll be sitting, before the overhead bins fill up. Now, if you’re on one of those semi-empty flights, you don’t have to worry about that. As a result, everyone is a lot more casual and relaxed about getting on the plane.”
“It can still happen. But what can no longer happen, as it’s covered by a new Department of Transportation rule, is a passenger being pulled off a flight once he or she has boarded and been seated, as in that notorious 2017 case on United. That’s a consumer benefit that I assume is here to stay.
“Badly behaving passengers can now get thrown off planes more easily because the TSA has been deputized to step in when necessary. I’m not sure that’s a responsibility they want, but they have the ability to do it. It’s designed to empower more people to have the backs of the flight attendants on the ground. They already have so much pressure on them and can only do so much to get you to follow the rules—like masking. (A pilot leaving the cockpit is problematic at any point in time.) Just imagine for a second if it was up to the flight attendant to determine whether you having a vaccination was the equivalent, in terms of boarding privileges, to someone having had a Covid test yesterday. It wouldn’t work.”
Tarmac Traffic and Delays
“You don’t really see that now, and it’s related, of course, to fewer flights going in and out of airports. And there is something else contributing—more efficient and faster flights. When the skies are crowded, you fly, especially on trans-Atlantic routes, on what are effectively highways in the sky, following the plane in front of you. If it runs into turbulence, for example, it notifies the plane behind it so it can modify its route or altitude. But because the skies have become less crowded, there has been some experimentation with using wind patterns to fly, as opposed to the highways. Using wind is like surfing. Instead of pushing against the wind, as you might at various times on a traditional route, you ride the wind, have the wave carry the plane. The goal was to see if this could improve both passenger comfort and fuel efficiency. And it does—3.5 to 4 percent better fuel efficiency, and the fights have also been shown to be faster. Which can help with congestion on the ground.”
Unsatisfying Airline Food
“I have always been amazed that the airlines try so hard in an area that is so difficult to be graded an’A’ on. No one walks off a plane, even on the best flights, saying,’Wow! Why would I bother getting a meal in Charleston, the food onboard was incredible!’ It’s just not like that. Jet Blue figured this out years ago. People like potato chips. People like Cheez-Its. The pandemic has forced airlines to adopt this model of little boxes or bags with a selection of things you can find in a grocery store. Put some humus in there, keep it simple. It’s easier for people to eat over the course of the four hours, as opposed to having it taken away. It’s easier to clean up. If you could do fondue on a flight, Swiss Air would have figured it out a long time ago. Cheez-Its are just fine. Cheez-Its have won.
“Well, at least domestically. Internationally, for places Americans can currently travel, Etihad, Emirates, and Turkish airlines are serving two meals, and one is happy to have them. Qatar has even more: a full, multi-course service—breakfast, dinner, and all the snacks you could dream off in-between—in its super new business class, called Q-Suite. I admit I’ll take that over Cheez-Its.”
Emotional Support Animals Everywhere
No more. The only support animals allowed on flights now are service dogs. So emotional support pigs, support peacocks, and support alpacas are out. Airlines charged a fortune for this, but it was always difficult for the operation of the business. Transporting animals is just not their strength. Animals are not cargo. They are thrilled to no longer have this problem, and the general consumer who is not a pet owner is thrilled about it too.
Waiting for Bags/Lost Bags
With the exception of American Airlines, the incidence of lost luggage is way down. Airports and airlines are just not as busy. Fewer fliers, fewer routes, and fewer bags means the bags move faster and fewer bags are misplaced. Pre-pandemic, there were certain times, at certain destinations, and with certain connections, when passengers’ bags were getting on earlier or later flights to the same destination than their owners were. That’s just not happening now; it’s not how the networks are working.
We will see many more direct flights to leisure destinations.
“A year ago, we were screaming for airlines to give us more nonstops from New York to Cabo San Lucas, for example. But finding take-off slots in the mornings has always been difficult because there was so much business travel trying to get out at that time. Without those largely business flights, airlines have been able to open up more flights to leisure destinations. Take Nice: Direct flights to Nice have always been challenging. I am confident that they will not be a problem this summer. I’ve had clients telling us,’We want to go to France, but we want to skip Paris. We want to be outdoors, in the countryside, on the coast.’ Et voila. It’s true all across the board. There is still a lot of aircraft sitting around. So if there is sudden demand—one of the Caribbean islands is giving away vaccinations, say, or a particular international border opening—I can see an airline saying,’we can put a flight in there two weeks from now.’ It’s amazing. It used to take 9 to 12 months. In my estimation, if you live in Seattle, it’s probably easier now to go directly to Doha than it is to London!”
New planes are opening up long-distance routes.
“The A350 and the 787 aircraft are changing how we travel. They are the smaller, incredibly efficient aircraft that can fly 8,000 miles, easily, anywhere. (They’re the ones going from Seattle to Doha.) They can go all the way around the world in 12 or 13 hours. You can fly on them from the East Coast to places like the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong. Yes, they are slightly slower, but just as luxurious and more affordable than the traditional Asian airlines. I believe this might change levels of interest in certain destinations in the next few years. The Middle East, the Indian Ocean, and Africa might surge relative to Europe, for instance, especially as people continue to have a desire to be in the big outdoors.”
The leisure traveler can benefit from the latest business upgrades. “Almost every airline as this point has spent the last year putting in all sorts of new business-class features, from new seats to better WiFi internationally. They were in the process of doing it anyway, before the lockdown. It was part of the plan to attract the corporate traveler. Well, that traveler won’t be back for a while. So in the near term, the leisure traveler should be grabbing those seats and going. You will get a lot of cooperation from hotels, a lot of cooperation from tour operators, and certainly a lot of cooperation from the airlines.
“Just as an aside: You might not get a lot of cooperation from the Chinese. They are currently requiring, in certain circumstances, a*** probes to prove your negative viral status, as reported in this story in the New York Post, quoting a Newsweek source, Li Tongzeng of Beijing’s You’an Hospital. They do not think that nasal testing is sufficient and apparently virus traces stay longer…elsewhere. Honestly, it’s right out of a horror movie. I don’t know who Li Tongzeng is, but I know I don’t want to have dinner with him.”
Note: Paul Tumpowsky’s company, Skylark, is a hybrid, technologically advanced luxury travel agency: It lets you book flights and hotels directly on their site, with an intuitive, simplified technology; it offers human experts and advisors (24/7 by chat, email, phone, or text) for when you need to discuss in person the details of a trip you’re booking or contemplating; and it also searches out travel deals.