September 22, 2021

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Just Do Travel

Air travel sees sharp decline as delta variant continues to derail vacation plans

3 min read

Summer travel was the big bounce-back story for 2021, with Covid-weary American travelers spending $6 billion on domestic flights in June alone, swapping screen time for downtime.

The delta variant of the coronavirus rapidly changed all that.

Domestic online flight bookings in July fell to $5.26 billion, a 13 percent decline from the previous month and 16 percent below 2019 levels, according to data from Adobe’s Digital Economy Index.

And August numbers are falling even faster: In just the first three weeks of the month, August 1-21, $2.9 billion was spent online for domestic flights. That’s 33 percent below the same period in 2019.

The numbers show that “U.S. consumers are taking the Delta variant seriously and once again shifting their travel plans,” said Vivek Pandya, lead analyst at Adobe Digital Insights. “At the current rate, we expect spend in the month of August to be significantly under July.”

Reports from other parts of the travel industry tell the same story.

American Airlines said last week that August revenue was coming in lower than expected because Covid cases were driving down bookings, the company’s chief revenue officer told a Raymond James investor conference. Other airlines, including Southwest, Frontier, and Spirit, have issued similar warnings.

A recent survey of 1,000 American travelers by Longwoods International market research company showed that almost two-thirds of travelers surveyed said they are changing their trip plans because of the coronavirus, up from 43 percent two months ago.

Leo MacLeod and his wife, Lisa LaManna, who plan to hike the Camino de Santiago pilgrim route in Spain, told NBC News they are altering their vacation plans due to Covid.

“We were going to stop in Paris on the way over, but because France has such stringent Covid-19 restrictions and we’re worried about crossing borders with the delta variant raging, we decided to skip France and go straight to Spain,” MacLeod said.

In addition to travelers changing plans, Longwoods found that 36 percent of American travelers surveyed said they have postponed travel to either later this year, or early next year, because of the delta variant. That is up 24 percent from just one month ago.

“The summer travel boom is at risk of stalling out as we move into fall,” said Amir Eylon, President and CEO of Longwoods International.

Fueling the drop-off is news that Hawaii’s governor is asking visitors not to travel to the state, and more cities are bring back their mask mandates and requiring proof of Covid vaccinations to enter dining and entertainment venues.

“The late-summer drop-off in new flight bookings is happening sooner and sharper right now than it had pre-pandemic,” Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, told NBC.

But Keyes say there is a silver lining. “This softening in new travel purchases is driving airlines to put their thumb on the scale and spur new bookings by slashing airfares to entice travel bargain hunters,” he said. “Airlines are also offering free flexibility to basic economy ticket holders for the rest of 2021, as United and Delta recently announced.”

Looking ahead to Labor Day holiday weekend, domestic flight bookings are down 16 percent compared to Labor Day weekend 2019, according to Adobe.

Many travelers may choose to drive this holiday weekend, feeling safer in a private vehicle than on a plane or other form of public transportation. And while last year’s Labor Day weekend gas prices were the lowest since 2004, this year prices at the pump are expected to average $3.11 per gallon. That’s the highest since the summer of 2014, according to fuel savings platform GasBuddy.

“For the most part, people who were planning to travel are still taking their trips, while being mindful to take important safety precautions to protect themselves and others,” said Julie Hall, a spokesperson for AAA. “But with a resurgence of Covid-19 cases, it’s important that travelers remain informed and be flexible.”