This Is What We've Come
To a Year Into the Pandemic
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 11, 2021 -- On a radio news show today, the anchor in Los Angeles came out of the traffic report--yeah, freeways were bumper-to-bumper--introduced me and promptly asked an insightful, useful question about some bit of travel news.

"What's the logic of this, Joe? And is it practical?"

"I dunno," I blurted out. "I don't think the people considering it know if it's logical or practical, either. They're looking for solutions. I don't think they've even gotten to the implementation or cost stage."

The co-anchor laughed. "This is what we've come to, huh?"

Yeah, fellow travelers, this is what we've come to about a year into this pandemic. All manner of new problems are being discovered, all sorts of old ones refuse to be solved, all sorts of people are coming up with all sorts of real and fanciful ideas.

That's my ham-fisted way of suggesting that I've got a passel of travel stuff here that raises many more questions than I can answer.

Rochelle Walensky, the new CDC director, says maybe there should be a negative Coronavirus test required before you can board a domestic flight. The new Transportation Secretary, Pete Buttigieg, says the idea is under discussion.

That's all the airlines needed to hear. They're in an uproar, claiming a domestic-testing regimen is too expensive, too unwieldy to implement and too annoying to the aviation powers that be in the C-suite.

To be honest, I don't know how I feel about domestic testing. It makes sense in the short-term, of course. But so did the TSA--and how's that working out for us after 20 years? I'd like to hear more, understand more about implementation and get a better handle on the process before I express an opinion.

That said, I do have one thought: Hey, airlines, shut up and fly. We've gifted you $75 billion or more in the last year and you're angling for $15 billion more in the next Coronavirus stimulus bill. When you're sucking this hard and this frequently at the public teat, I suggest you keep your corporate traps shut and do what we say. If we say there will be domestic testing, do it. If you don't want to do testing, fine. Give the money back.

When we get back to the road in numbers and with frequency, we are sure to notice our favored hotel chains look a lot different than they did before. Hundreds of properties have changed flags. Big winner there is Sonesta, which has added many former Inter-Continental and Marriott-branded properties and may be on the cusp of getting two dozen Hyatts. Many hotels have simply shut the doors and given the keys back to lenders, especially in big cities like New York.

But even with the reflaggings and closures, nothing quite compares to the moves made by Marriott in the last 30 days.

First, it cut a $430 million deal to buy the Welk Resorts in four states and Mexico. (Yes, apparently Lawrence Welk went into the resort business as his "Champagne music" and television careers were ending.) But Marriott isn't integrating the properties into any existing Marriott brand. It's converting them into Hyatt Residence time-shares, an arrangement that even the deal's PR flacks call a "complex, longer-term initiative."

Then Marriott announced a deal with Blue Diamond Resorts to convert about 20 Royalton, Hideaway and Planet Hollywood all-inclusive properties to the Autograph Collection. That will bring Marriott's portfolio of all-inclusive properties to nearly three dozen. You know, assuming that you want Marriott to feed and entertain you as well as put you up in aggressively bland rooms.

I wrote recently that I've been feeling like we're all living in a bad VHS copy of The Andromeda Strain. Turns out I wasn't wrong. The Biden Administration may be considering domestic travel restrictions. The theory is that some or all of the approximately 40 bazillion Coronavirus variants popping up are more contagious than the original strain. Curtailing travel might be helpful in slowing the spread.

Even before the Administration denied the report, however, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis flipped out. He perceived it as a Democratic Party attack on red-state Florida and his hopes of a presidential run in 2024. Back when the Trump Administration considered the Coronavirus a "blue state problem" in the early days of the pandemic, advisors suggested shutting down travel to places such as New York and Los Angeles.

Me? I won't worry about this one. I don't think a flight ban is practical and I know we don't have enough resources to block the Interstate highways. But it's fun to watch the Florida man DeSantis flip out in the meantime. Mostly because officials like DeSantis who position themselves as Virus heroes--looking at you, Andrew Cuomo of New York--should be ignored. They all should be working on getting vaccines in our arms and leave the politics out of it.

With U.S. flight volume bumping around at about 35% percent of last year's February traffic, it's easy to forget that things are bad all over. Around the world, passenger demand in 2020 was 75.6% below 2019 levels. That's according to IATA, the global airline trade association. In the Asia-Pacific region, travel plunged 80.3% in 2020 compared to 2019. It was down 73.7% in Europe, 71.8% in Latin America and 69.8% in Africa.

All that's actually "good" news. Bookings made in January for future travel were down 70% compared to last January. Barring a rapid recovery after vaccines are widespread, 2021 is going to look a lot like 2020.

Isn't that fun to think about after a year of this?