Fear and Frugality,
Family and the Future
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 29, 2020 -- The airlines are lying to us again, but I will, mostly, cut them some slack on this one. After all, when you're buried in the cellar, it seems churlish to argue over the specific depth.

The carriers have been doing their "woe is us" dance in recent weeks, claiming that passenger volume has dropped off and future bookings are grim. Yet the objective numbers show something else.






































Key: Number of people passing through airport checkpoints each month. * Percentage of 2019 volume in 2020. Source: TSA

As you can see by the chart I pulled together using daily TSA checkpoint numbers, passenger traffic has grown consistently since the worst moments of the pandemic in April. There's no denying the obvious or spinning numbers in another direction. The trend is up. More people are flying every month.

It is true that the speed of the air-traffic recovery has slowed dramatically. After April's disaster--when 3.2 million people flew, a shocking 4.7 percent of 2019 volume--traffic more or less doubled in May and again in June. Fast growth continued through July, but, for the last four months, traffic compared to 2019 has increased by a more modest 3 percentage points or so each month. Thirty-five percent of 2019 volume for October is nothing to write home to investors about. But it's better than 32 percent or 29 percent or where we were in April. And no matter what the airlines say, flying is coming back. (Editor's note: The chart was updated on November 1 to include all of October's traffic.)

The future is what I'm worried about now. And not just because we're reached a dangerous new wave of Coronavirus infections, have no clear plan to combat it and no real knowledge about the progress of a vaccine.

From that awful day--April 14--when fewer than 88,000 Americans flew--we've now had our first million-passenger day (October 18) and several north of 900,000. But the easy growth is gone. The fear factor will kick in.

Fear of flying in a second wave of infections. Fear of flying to get to a meeting or conference. (Employers really do have a duty of care not to put employees in harm's way.) But, mostly, fear of flying itself.

I've lost track of the number of studies published in recent months that purported to assess the safety of the in-flight environment. Many were serious and well-meaning. Others, like the one this month promoted by the airlines, was a ludicrous mash-up of awful math, questionable science, biased intent and bad juju.

What is impossible to ignore is this week's new study from Ireland's Department of Health. It lays out how easily this disease can spread on an aircraft. On one nonstop--purportedly a Qatar Airways A350 flight from Dublin to Doha--there were only 49 passengers. Yet 13 contracted the Coronavirus and they infected dozens more after the flight.

Which is why today's move from United Airlines, limited as it is, points to the short- and medium-term future of how flying must be. United says it will test all passengers on select Newark-London flights to guarantee a Coronavirus-free environment. Alitalia has run Coronavirus-free flights, too.

The only way the airlines will get many once-intrepid flyers to climb on a plane again is if they do the work required to ensure their flights are safe. Fear trumps wanderlust now and it's foolish to suggest otherwise.

No matter what the Trump Administration hopes you'll believe about today's gaudy GDP numbers, there has been no V-shaped recovery. There won't and can't be since there's no effective nationwide testing and no non-fake news about an effective vaccine. A global recession is not out of the realm of possibility and there's going to be real domestic pain no matter who is elected on Tuesday.

That means frugality when it comes to travel. Companies won't want to spend as much. Individuals will be bargain hunting for affordable holidays. Remember the Great Recession of 2008-2009 and how that affected your travel? It's going to be a lot like that or worse.

The good news? Travel costs are plunging. In the second quarter, according to the Transportation Department, the average domestic airfare was the lowest since the agency began tracking prices in 1995. No one actually pays $259--the putative average fare--for a plane ticket, of course. But there will be bargains for the foreseeable future.

Hotel prices will be cheaper, too. Last week's average nightly room rate in the United States (about $95) is down nearly 30 percent from last year.

The deals may not last too long, of course. As travel picks up, airlines and hotels will be eager to raise prices. But remember that we'll hold the hammer for some time to come. More than half the nation's operating guestrooms are empty, thousands of hotels are still closed--and new properties continue to open because it's impossible to shut the pre-pandemic development pipeline. Airlines can't practice too much pricing discipline, either. They've got thousands of aircraft parked--and parked aircraft don't generate revenue. The carriers need to get them flying again and the only way to get them filled is to offer genuine fare bargains.

I've said this about a billion times over the years: Business travel is a leading indicator of recession and trailing indicator of recovery. It'll be no different this time. No company or airline that I've spoken with in recent weeks sees a rapid recovery of business travel.

Leisure travel will be a hard pull, too. So much of the world is off-limits to us and so many of us are not working.

The future of travel will be about families. When and how it is safe, that's what I hear from the experts--and from you. You're doing very little business travel and virtually no leisure travel. But you're itching to see family and those are likely to be your first optional trips.

"First time I can, I want to see my folks," one member told me via E-mail this week. "And, boy, my mom wants to pamper the hell out of her grandkids at the earliest opportunity."