When air travel numbers plummeted last year, airlines slashed routes to account for the massive drop in demand. But now not only are passenger numbers increasing, but also interest in flying again is soaring.
“Kayak’s flight search data set a record high since the pandemic began this past Thursday, only to see that record then broken Friday, only to see that record then broken on Saturday,” says Scott Keyes, the founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights.
As we start to plan trips again, airlines are adding routes to accommodate our gradual return to the skies. Scott Laurence, head of revenue and planning at JetBlue, says the airline has adapted at a pace like never before, pivoting routes to changing customer interest. Last year, the airline added more than 80 routes as a result.
Those changes offer a glimpse into how travel behavior has shifted because of the pandemic. Here are four travel trends we can expect in 2021 based on what new flight routes can tell us.
We’re getting more flights for leisure travelers and fewer for business ones
With business travel all but eliminated, airlines aren’t focusing on pleasing business travelers right now. Instead, they’re targeting “VFR” (visiting family and relatives) flights and leisure travel, says Ian Petchenik, director of communications for the flight-tracking site Flightradar24.
“We’re not seeing any new [service] on business-heavy routes,” says Petchenik, who is also the co-host of the AvTalk podcast. “More generally, people are taking advantage of being able to either get outside or go someplace that is kind of a recreation-type destination with a normal year.”
Keyes says scheduled flights for business hubs, such as D.C., New York and Massachusetts, are down more than 50 percent for March 2021 compared to March 2019.
“Airlines have really rerouted their airplanes and that infrastructure toward [leisure] destinations because they know that’s the ballgame right now,” Keyes says.
A spokesperson for Southwest Airlines confirmed that as states began easing coronavirus travel restrictions, demand increased for flights to leisure-oriented destinations, particularly ones with sun or snow. As a result, the airline is investing heavily into markets that fit emerging travel trends, including Miami; Palm Springs, Calif.; Colorado; Hilton Head, S.C.; and Montana.
People still want to travel to the great outdoors
Keyes says airline routes predict that travel preferences from 2020 will hold through 2021.
“The story of 2020 travel — the actual travel that happened — was essentially one of travelers taking outdoor trips,” Keyes says. There were “two primary groups of places, either the National Parks bucket and the Florida beaches bucket.”
Mark Crossey, U.S. travel expert for Skyscanner, says that Florida and Hawaii have been topping Skyscanner search lists and that he expects that to remain throughout the year. According to data based on trends from Google Search, Florida has been the most popular domestic destination search by far in 2021.
Frontier Airlines is appealing to that audience by offering 60 nonstop routes from Orlando International Airport, and it is starting new services from there to beach destinations such as Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, St. Thomas and Cancún, Travel Pulse reported.
Keyes agrees. “You’re still seeing a huge and disproportionate interest in Florida, in the West, in Hawaii,” he says.
Hawaii seems to appeal to people who want an aspirational trip with the security of traveling domestic. Brian Znotins, vice president of network and schedule planning for American Airlines, says even though interest in Hawaii is significantly lower than pre-pandemic times (just like travel overall), the airline is anticipating the demand for Hawaii to be strong this summer and is adding flights accordingly.
Aside from the beach, outdoor-centric destinations are having a moment. Montana is one of two states that saw an increase in scheduled flights in March 2021 compared to 2019, Keyes says.
Border openings will affect our international options
Airlines want to get people to where they can actually go. Some new routes are betting on international destinations becoming more popular because they’re accessible now, or will be soon.
With South Africa’s borders reopened, Delta is adding a service to Cape Town starting this month. American Airlines is launching new flights to Tel Aviv, citing Israel’s strong vaccine rollout as a sign of hope for future U.S. travelers.
Even though travel to Asia is limited, a Singapore Airlines spokesperson said the airline has been prioritizing ultra-long-haul nonstop operations from the United States to Southeast Asia in hopes of making Singapore Changi Airport a major hub for American travelers. When we can make that trip again, the airline’s entire U.S. route network will consist of nonstops using faster, fuel-efficient aircraft that shave up to five hours of total travel time (while reducing carbon emissions by 30 percent).
We have a better chance of finding cheap domestic flights than international ones
When you feel safe enough to travel again, Keyes says you’ll have better luck finding deals on domestic tickets than international ones.
“The broad swath takeaway has been that domestic flights have largely been a lot cheaper and they were pre-pandemic, but international flights have been about what they were pre-pandemic or more expensive,” Keyes says.
According to Keyes, that’s because there aren’t as many cheap flights available to popular international destinations such as Europe and Southeast Asia as there were before the pandemic.
“The airlines aren’t flying nearly as much capacity to those places,” he says.
Cheap flights are to be found where airlines are adding more routes and capacity — which for now is mostly in the domestic market, Crossey says.
“For example, United Airlines are adding non-stop routes from New York and Chicago to Hawaii for summer, and Delta are running expanded services to Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and Florida for the summer,” he explained in an email.
Of course there will be exceptions to the rule. Mexico may be international, but because travel demand there has remained high throughout the pandemic, you’ll still be able to find good airfare deals.
Keyes says sustained interest in Mexico lets airlines know customers are there. If airlines lower the price, they can expect to get more bookings. And so, your likelihood of getting a cheap flight to Mexico is going to be higher.
Whether you’re considering going abroad or taking a trip within the United States, you may want to get an airfare tracker going now as prices overall are expected to rise later this year.
Read more on travel during the pandemic:
Tips: Advice column | Coronavirus testing | Sanitizing your hotel | Updating documents
Flying: Pandemic packing | Airport protocol | Staying healthy on planes | Fly or drive? | Layovers
Road trips: Tips | Rental cars | Best snacks | Long-haul trains | Rest stops | Cross-country drive
Destinations: Hawaii | Puerto Rico | Private islands | 10 covid-free spots | Caribbean | Mexico