All Leisure
All the Time
THURSDAY, MARCH 25, 2021 -- Microsoft co-founder turned philanthropist Bill Gates wants you to know that the world will be "basically completely back to normal" by the end of 2022.

Of course, Gates also thought Microsoft BOB and the Zune were good ideas, so grain of salt ...

Gates made his prognostication this week to the Polish news media, but he's clearly on the same page as U.S. airlines. A spate of route announcements in the last few days makes it clear that 2021 is going to be a weird and disjointed year and nothing like "basically completely normal" at all.

If you've been wondering about 2021, be prepared for a focus on leisure travel. A year of odd routes that circumvent hubs. A year of domestic travel, not international flying. And, mostly, a year without much business travel.

As U.S. flying zooms upward--it nearly touched 70% of 2019 levels in recent days, but has mostly been in the 50% range--it's clear that business travel isn't driving the revival. The routes that are crowded are to domestic beach destinations or nearby spots in the Caribbean and Mexico. There's hardly any long-haul international travel, what with Europe short of shots and gripped by new Coronavirus variants and countries such as China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand basically closed. And there's precious little domestic business travel, especially since there are no conventions to attend, few in-person meetings or conferences and even fewer people back in their offices.

If we spend a few moments on the recent route announcements, you'll see exactly where 2021 will be going. Adjust your planning accordingly.

When United Airlines dropped a new series of route announcements today, all I could think of was Doc Brown at the end of Back to the Future. "Roads?" he says to Marty McFly, not yet aware of the Mr. Fusion-power DeLorean's abilities "Where we going we don't need roads!" Then I thought of Alfonso Bedoya, the legendary Gold Hat of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. "Badges? We ain't got no badges" he says to feral Fred C. Dobbs. "We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinkin' badges!"

Substitute hubs for roads and badges and you get the gist of United's summer plans. Of its 26 new routes, not one touches a United hub. All 26 are point-to-point runs connecting mostly second-tier Midwest cities with beachy destinations in the East.

Did you ever think United would fly from Columbus, Ohio, to Portland, Maine? Connect Milwaukee nonstop with Pensacola, Florida? Operate nonstop between Pittsburgh and Hilton Head? Run service between Indianapolis and Charleston, South Carolina? Return to its former hub in Cleveland to operate a nonstop to Myrtle Beach? Those and many more start as early as May 27.

Even though it's running less than 60% of its 2019 schedule, United is desperate to find new markets where there are travelers willing to fly. And with these nonstops that bypass hubs, United is betting 2021 is going to be all about leisure travel.

In fact, many of the new summer routes will be flown with CRJ-550s, the unicorn regional jet United designed in 2019 specifically to fly on business routes. Nothing says "no business travel this year" like assigning RJs designed for frequent flyers to beach runs.

Southwest Airlines says its business travel is down 90% as of March 15. It doesn't expect a rebound any time soon.

The solution? More leisure flying, of course. The target: Myrtle Beach. Earlier this month it announced its intention to fly to the South Carolina golf mecca and today Southwest unveiled a fusillade of flights. Beginning May 23, it will start three routes (from Nashville, Baltimore and Chicago/Midway); add two more airports the following week (Pittsburgh and Dallas/Love); and follow up the week after that with five more cities (Atlanta, Columbus, Indianapolis, Kansas City and St. Louis).

If Myrtle Beach is a new destination for Southwest, the feeder cities are not. The airline already has a substantial presence at all ten airports. And Southwest is also playing a favorite promotional card: free checked bags. But this time the angle is that "golf bags fly free" since Southwest allows you to substitute your clubs for one of your two checked bags.

For those few of us on the road now, Delta Air Lines has emerged as a favorite for one reason: It has kept flying empty middle seats in coach as all other carriers have returned to full capacity. The commitment extends to April 30 and we have no clue if Delta will extend the open-seat policy again.

But we do know Delta's summer flying is about open spaces. It's adding flights to places like Bozeman, Missoula and Glacier Park. Montana; Rapid City, South Dakota; and Burlington, Vermont. There will be more flights to the Caribbean. (Did you ever think you'd be able to fly nonstop from Atlanta to Roatan, an island off the coast of Honduras?) Delta is bulking up with summer flights to Alaska, too. There won't just be flights to Anchorage, but also into Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka and Fairbanks.

Unlike United's ignore-the-hubs plan, Delta is adding almost all these new flights from one of its hubs. We can discuss which strategy will work better, but one thing is clear: 2021 is about leisure travel and leisure travel near or around the states.

We can argue about whether the airlines are wise to pursue an all-leisure-all-the-time strategy. After all, vacationers traditionally have been ballast to justify increased frequency for high-yield business travel. But when there isn't any business travel--Chicago's McCormick Place's events calendar is a long list of cancellations and New York's Javits Center is a mass vaccination site--what else can you do?

Insert your own Zune joke here. Seems appropriate ...