June 19, 2021

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Just Do Travel

The summer travel surge at airports may make you think it’s 2019 again … just with masks

6 min read
Forney’s Megan Broussard canceled an Alaskan Cruise she had planned with her husband last summer...

Forney’s Megan Broussard canceled an Alaskan Cruise she had planned with her husband last summer and waited through nearly all of 2020 dreaming of when she could travel again. In December, with the first COVID-19 vaccines getting emergency authorization, she couldn’t wait any longer.

But with travel restrictions still in effect in many parts of the world, Broussard decided it would be easier to call a travel agent, who recommended an all-inclusive resort near Cancun.

“We can plan our own trip, but as I was telling my husband, I don’t want to deal with all the extra stuff, figuring out where we want to stay and what the rules would be,” said Broussard, calling from her hotel room in Mexico after an excursion swimming with dolphins. “And even then I was texting Kristie (her travel agent) in the middle of the night asking about the COVID protocols.”

Broussard is one of the millions of Americans ready to cast away the caution of a year spent avoiding airplanes and destinations. Airlines and travel analysts are anticipating a surge in demand that could make airports look like they did before the COVID-19 pandemic sucked the momentum out of the red hot travel industry.

While statistics from security checkpoints show an uptick in travel that began in March, airport officials believe there will be a big boost in traffic starting Thursday as the Memorial Day travel weekend begins and extending through the summer until school starts again.

After a year of empty airports, puny Transportation Security Administration lines and ample seats on airplanes, passengers may have to adjust again to a more crowded experience.

American Airlines said it will fly about 90% as many domestic seats this summer as it did in 2019, which was a record year for airlines. The Fort Worth-based carrier will also fly about 80% as many international seats as it did in 2019, buoyed by trips to Mexico and the Caribbean since most of Europe and Asia remain tough to access for American tourists.

At DFW, American will actually fly 1.1% more flights between May and September than it did in 2019 due to the fact that more of the carrier’s traffic is coming through North Texas than in times past, according to data from airline schedule tracking company Diio by Cirium.

In fact, American will have flights to more nonstop destinations this summer from DFW than it did in 2019 as it revamps its network for better connections to in-demand parts of the country such as Pensacola, Fla.; Bozeman, Mont., and Fairbanks, Alaska.

American’s pandemic strategy has been to route more traffic through its major hubs, a boon for DFW Airport, located just a few miles from the company’s corporate headquarters.

On Friday, American will fly 818 flights to 219 unique destinations, said Jim Moses, the airline’s vice president for DFW operations.

“Heading into this summer, we are absolutely thrilled to see more customers willing to travel,” Moses said. “Things are ramping up quickly.”

Dallas Love Field TSA director Amy Williams said the agency expects traffic over Memorial Day weekend to be about 70% as busy as it was in 2019. TSA has installed stanchions with plexiglass barriers for longer queue lines in anticipation of people spacing out more when waiting to get through checkpoints.

Love Field, which hosts the headquarters for Southwest Airlines, is among the busiest airports for the Dallas-based carrier.

The Dallas connection

North Texas could be the center of the aviation world this summer. American Airlines has scheduled more flights and seats than any of its competitors this summer, more than 20% more than its next largest competitor in Atlanta-based Delta Airlines, according to Cirium.

“Airlines are no longer chasing revenue, they are trying to rebuild networks around a schedule that actually makes money,” said Jeff Pelletier, managing director of Dallas-based Airline Data Inc. “DFW makes a lot of sense from a revenue standpoint and is even passing Atlanta by a lot of measures.”

Travelers in the South and Southwest have also been more willing to travel through the pandemic. DFW was the nation’s second-busiest airport in 2020, skipping ahead of Los Angeles International and Chicago O’Hare, two regions that have been more aggressive with coronavirus restrictions. The northeastern U.S. is just beginning to loosen up restrictions on dining and visitors, while Texas is dropping all mandates for masks in the coming weeks.

American Airlines isn’t the only carrier adding new flights at DFW. Spirit Airlines is adding flights to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Another ultra-low-cost carrier, Frontier Airlines, is adding flights from DFW to Chicago O’Hare.

“The airlines are … getting aggressive,” said John Ackerman, DFW’s executive vice president of global strategy and development. “The airlines have been exploring a lot during the pandemic, for the new kind of airline economics.”

‘Starting to feel like normal again’

Heath travel agent Kristie Catchings, who booked the trip for Broussard and her husband, said there is a lot of demand from people who acted cautiously during the last year. North Texas travelers are eagerly watching for travel restrictions to be lifted in places such as the European Union, she said. Leaders in Spain last week said that country would reopen to fully vaccinated tourists in early June.

“It’s just rolling and starting to feel like normal again,” said Catchings, who owns Kristie Len Travel in the Rockwall County town.

Catchings said the COVID-19 pandemic has been a roller coaster for her business. She had almost no business in April, May and June of last year. Business started coming back in fall 2020 for a few adventurous travelers. She closed her $1,500 a month storefront office, and her 10 agents are working from home. Starting in February, as vaccine distribution gave hope of a strong summer travel season, customers were clamoring to travel.

Leisure travelers are still dominating the travel market. Southwest said business travel in March was down 85% compared to 2019 and April was down 80%.

That sent Southwest, American, and others scrambling to find new routes to serve leisure customers and families. Spots such as the Florida Panhandle and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula have emerged as the premier vacation destinations, bolstered in part by lax COVID restrictions in those two regions.

A departure board at Dallas Love Field.
A departure board at Dallas Love Field.(Brandon Wade / Special Contributor)

But even popular destinations are closely watching for an outbreak that could set tourism back. Leaders in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo warned recently that they may enact restrictions if a COVID-19 outbreak doesn’t subside, according to news reports from the region.

Catchings said American’s expanded flight schedule to Mexico has been a major draw for customers. American is flying seven to eight flights a day from DFW to Cancun this summer, even flying dozens of flights on larger Boeing 787 and 777 jets, which carry between 240 and 273 passengers. The airline is putting those bigger planes to use on the Mexico route instead of long-haul flights to Europe and Asia.

Southwest has boosted flights to Cancun, too, but those flights are going through Houston, the airlines’ primary Central America and Caribbean hub.

For customers like Broussard, whose flight to Cancun was her first since the pandemic began, the airport experience has changed. Some passengers may notice pre-flight COVID-19 testing stations that are required for travel to some destinations. A federal mandate still requires masks at airports and on planes for all passengers, despite Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that say vaccinated individuals can go without a mask.

“For a lot of people, this will be their first time at an airport in more than a year and since this all started,” said Williams, who has been increasing staffing at Love Field in anticipation of bigger crowds. “Travelers should probably get here earlier to give themselves plenty of time, not just for crowds but for everything that has changed.”

Passengers board a flight to New Orleans at Dallas Love Field in Dallas, Wednesday, May 19, 2021. (Brandon Wade/Special Contributor)

Passengers wait in line at the American Airlines check-in counters at the Los Angeles International Airport in April.

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