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When it comes to air travel in 2021, there's some cautious optimism

The airline industry may see some improvement this year, depending on vaccine efforts.

MINNEAPOLIS — Temperatures are in the 20s again around the Twin Cities on New Year’s Day, so, naturally, you may be dreaming of a tropical vacation right now. Travel remains highly discouraged as we enter 2021, but depending on the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, the outlook may improve by the end of the year.  

To help us make sense of the travel industry in 2021, we spoke on Friday with Kyle Potter, the executive editor of Minnesota-based Thrifty Traveler. Here’s a transcript of our conversation (with some slight edits): 

KARE 11: Big picture, what do you see for the future of travel in 2021? 

KYLE POTTER: It’s a moving picture right now. I think most critically, for the first time since maybe last March, there is actually hope we will be able to travel in this next year. Whether that’s next month, probably not, or a couple of months, maybe, but as you look far out into 2021, the second and third quarters of the year, there’s confidence that people are actually going to be able to take the trips that they book. Airlines and travel companies are saying that, for the first time in many, many months, they’re seeing people book those trips 10 or 11 months out. 

KARE 11: For anyone optimistic about the second half of 2021, summer or fall, what would your advice be to them as they potentially make plans? 

KYLE: Even though things are still uncertain, right now is actually an amazing time to book travel for a couple of reasons. Flight prices are about as low as we’ve ever seen them. That’s what Thrifty Traveler does, we find flight deals, and it has been bananas for the last several weeks. And on top of that, airlines are offering free change and cancellation policies. Almost every major U.S. airline, even some of the minor ones and even some of the major international ones, are saying, ‘as long as you book with us by the end of January or as far out as March 2021, we will allow you to change that ticket for free, or you can cancel it and get a voucher for your ticket.' There’s just that unprecedented level of flexibility. You don’t have to be taking a huge gamble if you’re booking a trip for later in 2021.  

KARE 11: Financially, what’s the outlook for the airline industry right now? 

KYLE: It’s a little shaky still. I think now, there is that kind of hope that travel will resume or start to resume by the end of the year. They’re in a better place than they were a few months ago. Still, it’s hard to know exactly how things are going to improve. International travel is probably not going to return to pre-COVID levels for many, many years. Domestic travel will come back quicker, but, that is still going to be pretty uneven and choppy for the next several months. And business travel, I don’t think anyone expects to come back to pre-COVID levels for a long time. The airlines really rely on corporate travelers who book seats up front and pay a ton for it, or book last-minute because they have to pay a lot more and because plans are constantly changing. That’s what the airlines have built their business around. Until that comes back in a meaningful way, it’s going to be a little shaky for airlines. 

KARE 11: Numbers-wise, overall, where are the airlines in terms of how much travel has dropped over the pandemic? 

KYLE: Even during this kind of hectic (by pandemic terms) Christmas travel period, travel numbers in the U.S. were still down about 50 percent compared to the same time last year. That’s going to drop again. This was a very busy travel period with people going to see family on quick trips. We’re going to be way off from the norm. MSP has said they don’t expect travel numbers, the number of passengers they see, to return to 2019 levels until at least 2024. That may even be a little optimistic. I think it really depends. Charting what travel recovery looks like is really difficult right now. We just don’t know how vaccine distribution is going to go, how countries around the world are going to respond with travel restrictions, how companies are going to respond with sending business travelers out to work again. There’s a lot in flux right now and you’re going to have to ask me again in three or four months about what that outlook is. 

KARE 11: It sounds like there are reasons for optimism – but, a lot of questions still. 

KYLE: Absolutely. The biggest thing, I think, is there is some hope and confidence that people are going to be able to travel again. That is new. We haven’t felt that for a long time. What really speaks volumes, to me anyway, is we had a big promo to say good riddance to 2020 and it was by far the most successful promo our company has ever had. If you had told me in July, that we had a promo and it was going to go this well, I wouldn’t have believed you. It was such a different picture. There was no confidence in travel just a few months ago. 

The other thing to keep in mind, as people do start thinking of returning to travel, is it’s going to be different for years. I think mask mandates are probably going to be in place on airlines for awhile. I would expect that is probably the last place that those mandates will disappear from. There’s never been a federal regulation on that, but all the airlines have really ratcheted up and banned people. Until we return to those 2019 travel levels, the number of flights in and around and out of the country is not going to look like what it did a year ago. There are going to be fewer frequencies between cities, where you might have been able to choose between eight or nine flights on Delta to go from MSP to Chicago, it’s going to be more like four or five throughout the day for a long time, until travel returns to what we had come to expect. 

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