You are flying at 35,000 feet cutting a seam across the sky and thinking to yourself how perfectly great your flight is going. Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, you’re heading nose down at breakneck speed and don’t know how far you’ll fall or if you’ll even survive.
That is exactly what happened to the airline industry last year. In March 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic. The virus, which originated in China, exploded like a neutron bomb, crippling the industry but leaving its infrastructure intact. It raised its flag on every continent except Antarctica, killing more than four million worldwide and seriously damaging air travel everywhere. Airline projections failed to anticipate what a virus could do. Not anymore. The virus turned a robust international travel market into a ghost. From 2019 to 2020 it fell by nearly 70 percent. Ten-day quarantines for travelers flying into a host of countries didn’t help. The travel industry called it “the worst year in history for travel demand.” It wasn’t just overseas travel taking a hit. In the U.S., one out of two U.S. flyers found other ways to travel.
Travel at DIA illustrates the industry overall. In 2020, air travel through DIA nosedived to its lowest level since opening a quarter of a century before. Fewer than half of 2019’s 69 million travelers passed through America’s sixth busiest U.S. airport in 2020.
But with vaccines now a proven safeguard against the virus, airlines are bouncing back. And while that makes them happy, a ton of traveler’s aren’t. Airlines, they complain, are overbooking and overcharging, even gouging. They may be right, said University of Denver Professor and aviation industry expert, Lowell Valencia-Miller.
“What you’re seeing is supply and demand,” he said. Pre-pandemic fares in the business are gone, at least for now. “It’s not like turning on a light switch,” he said. “Airlines are trying to catch up.” Unfortunately, vacation, holiday and impulse travelers aren’t the airline’s top-of-the-food chain clientele. Still, they’re the ones bearing the burden of the industry’s bounce back.
What about the government’s $25 billion earmark to the airlines to keep the industry flying, consumers wonder? Wasn’t that enough? A lot of that money, said Valencia-Miller, went to pay furloughed employees and avoid layoffs. Government assistance after 9/11, he said, did the same. “Aviation is a key element to the economy.”
Americans---everyone actually---are ready to travel again, and not the old fashioned way. They want to fly. Demand for, not just tickets but hotels and everything related to travel, is up. Carriers are no longer keeping empty middle seats. ‘Sardine-style’ travel where every seat is booked even overbooked is back.
Airlines are simply reacting to market forces. That has a big impact on states like Colorado that depend on both warm and cold weather tourists. “Keeping businesses in business,” said Valencia-Miller, “is a very big issue.” Just what will bring us back to ‘the good old days,’ said the DU business professor, is the business traveler, the lifeblood of the airline industry. While most airline customers may think they’re at the top of the aviation food chain, they’re not. As Fortune Magazine said recently, “business travelers…are responsible for 60 percent to 70 percent of all airline revenue even though they make up only about 12 percent of all passengers.”
While summer travel season may be returning, the pandemic’s gut punch to business travel lingers. Not all businesses are completely open for business; Zoom meetings remain a way of conducting business; until confidence returns, companies are comfortable holding the line on travel budgets.
Booking flights on low-cost airlines may also not be in the cards. Frequent flyer miles, credit card perks and long-standing relationships with legacy airlines are all factored into the business flyer equation.
But with summer travel season soon coming to an end, said Valencia-Miller, things may not be turning in favor of the non-business traveler. Airlines likely won’t be lowering fares. From Labor Day to two weeks before Thanksgiving, air travel stalls. “That’s when airlines always relied on the business traveler…relied on them to keep them going.”
Now, as a lot of passengers are coming back and flying again, airlines continue to enforce policies dictated by the virus, including the requirement to wear masks. And masks, too much alcohol or just unpleasant and unruly passengers, are creating a whole new issue for the industry. In 2021, the once ‘friendly skies’ took an ugly turn.
In a recent survey, 85 percent of flight attendants say they’ve dealt with unruly passengers in recent months. The Association of Flight attendants say members have encountered not one but up to five ugly incidents with nearly 20 percent the incidents getting physical. Everyone’s safety, said the DU Daniels College of Business professor, is at stake. The Department of Transportation needs to make sure “that people who violate rules and regulations are prosecuted…it’s becoming a major problem.
Negative passenger encounters, though, are not the industry’s only problem in the COVID era. The Delta variant, a vicious and deadlier cousin of the virus, has appeared and threatens to prolong airline travel woes. Researchers have labeled it more dangerous and deadly than its predecessor. “The great minds of science are revising their thinking,” said Valencia-Miller. “I hope the airlines devise a strategy to prepare.”