This Is Not Normal. This
Isn't Even a 'New' Normal
THURSDAY, APRIL 22, 2021 -- For reasons best known to themselves, the travel media is racing to declare things normal. The drive-by mainstream media, which rarely ventures beyond reframing airline and hotel platitudes, agrees.

Allow me to let you in on a little secret: This is not normal. It's not even one of those make-believe, mind-bending, reduced-expectation "new" normals.

We are nowhere near normal. Google Maps can't find normal no matter how long the buffering wheel whirls. We are ten or twenty zip codes away from normal. As Rod Serling might have said, "That's the signpost up ahead. Your next stop: Not Normal."

I get that you may have read today about airlines claiming they expect to be profitable in the second or third quarter. That domestic bookings are soaring and new routes are coming. Hell, Southwest Airlines even registered a first-quarter profit of $116 million.

But this is biased-eye-of-the-beholder stuff. Airlines have claimed we've reached a post-pandemic inflection point before. Their hot domestic bookings and new routes are coming from and aimed at a single silo of the marketplace: leisure travel. Hell, Southwest's "profit" only happened because of the huge taxpayer bailouts. Without picking our pockets, Southwest admits it would have lost a billion dollars in the first quarter.

If more of us were actually on the road, I'd say just look around and believe your own eyes. Airports remain mostly ghost towns with boarded-up shops, closed restaurants, disused concourses and shuttered lounges. Car rentals are scarce. Many of our favorite hotels are closed. Others continue to claim a bag of tired fruit, cheap yogurt and a crumbling granola bar constitutes breakfast. Their bars, restaurants, health clubs, pools and spas are mostly dark. Lots of luck ordering room service. And one glance at airline schedules reveals a painful reality: Getting where business travelers need to go is a sometimes thing--and almost always with a connection.

But since so few of us are on the road again, most of us can't look around to dispute the ludicrous narrative being pushed by airlines and their media lackeys. For truth, let's turn to the statistics that paint the directional arrows of our lives (not) on the road.
        Flying is slowing. After the impressive Easter run at the beginning of April, passenger traffic has slowed markedly. Two days last week fell below 50% of 2019 volume. Tuesday's count--1,082,443--was the slowest day in the skies in a month. I don't see how a system doing around 50-55% of its 2019 volume is anything like "normal."
        The world is off-limits. Travel "experts" were shocked--shocked!--this week when the State Department aligned its international guidance to CDC recommendations and put 80% of the globe into Level Four, "do not travel." But this bureaucratic move is purely cosmetic. Most of us can't travel internationally because they won't have us. It doesn't matter what State says. Precious few nations are open to U.S. visitors. Hell, even Canada this week extended the closure of its land border for another month. How's any of this normal?
        Delta's declension The spray of statistics I post every day on our Coronavirus Travel Report can sometimes create an unintentional fog of TMI. But Delta Air Lines' analysis during its first-quarter report last week was laser-sharp: Its domestic leisure business is 85% of 2019 levels. But business travel is just 20% of 2019. International long-haul flying is just 15% of 2019 levels. Um, not normal.
        Hotel horrors Despite proclaiming last month as the best post-pandemic period, the folks at STR, the lodging-industry statisticians, also told the truth about March, 2021. Nationwide occupancy and average daily rate were down 20% compared to March, 2019. And revPAR (revenue per available room), a key indicator of hotel profitability, is still down an eye-watering 35.8%. Not normal.
        Europe is worse. Eurocontrol, which operates the continent's air traffic control system, says aircraft traffic between Europe and the rest of the world is just 38% of 2019 levels. In recent days, traffic around the continent has been just 36% of 2019. No normal there.
        Half an airline United Airlines was the most bearish carrier at the start of the pandemic--and it was right. But on Tuesday, during its second-quarter earnings call, it claimed it could be profitable soon even if business and long-haul international travel are just 35% of 2019 levels. Maybe, maybe not. But here's the key stat: United's May schedule will only be 52% as large as its schedule in May, 2019. How's that normal?
         Happy talk, sober stats Three airlines--Alaska, American and Southwest--reported 1Q earnings today. It was mostly happy talk. Except, you know, for the hard statistics. Besides, Southwest's taxpayer-funded profit, American lost $1.25 billion and Alaska bled $131 million--or $436 million before bailout funds. Worse, Southwest still expects business travel demand to be down 50-60% at the end of the year compared to 2019. Alaska said it'll be 50%. How is any of that normal?
         Bad bellwethers Cathay Pacific Airways, one of the world's best airlines, carried just 18,539 passengers in March. That's down 94% compared to March, 2020, which was already horrific for the airline. Meanwhile, Emirates Airline, the beast of the Middle East, this week is operating just 484,000 seats to 107 destinations. In 2019, it flew 1,170,000 seats to 142 destinations. Nowhere near normal.

I could go on, but I'm beginning to depress myself. And, honest, it wasn't my purpose to depress you, either. But we're smarter than the travel media and the we-stole-$50-or-maybe-$75-billion-from-you airlines think. We know this is not normal. This is not even the latest in the seemingly endless "new" normals to which we've adjusted since 9/11.

You will know what normal looks like. You will moan about having to go to a trade show at McCormick Place in February. Complain about the ridiculously high cost of a New York hotel. You'll be sweating in Vegas again and regretting that you stopped at the blackjack table between visits to the convention floor. You'll bitch about how small the rooms are in London. You'll vow never to fly into Narita again when you could have flown to Haneda. You'll get lost inside CDG Terminal 2 again.

That's normal. That's still far away--maybe four years away, say the folks at the U.S. Travel Association.

This will be a marathon, not a sprint. There are no happy-talk shortcuts. You'll know normal when you see it and feel it--and complain about it.

Meanwhile, do yourself a favor. Get a nifty, zip-top plastic protector for your CDC vaccination card. They're cheap, they're ready to hang on a lanyard and they slip reasonably well inside your passport.

That's not normal, either. But it's as close as we'll get this week.