Airlines Are Luring Travelers Back With Cheap Fares and Empty Seats — but Is It Worth It?

Young woman wearing a face mask while waiting for her flight in a mostly empty airport

This spring, airlines grounded most of their fleets and slashed more than 90 percent of their schedules. Even then, many planes flew nearly empty. By July, U.S. carriers had recovered some of their pre-pandemic business, with flights on average about 50 percent full, according to Cirium, a company that tracks the sector. Airlines remain in dire financial straits, but the mask-wearing passengers still flying have found plenty of room to stretch out (even in coach), plus uncongested airports, deep-cleaned aircraft, and tons of overhead bin space.

Thanks to limited demand, airfares are more affordable than they have been in years, with domestic one-ways starting as low as $24. Other deals, ever-changing border closures notwithstanding, included New York to Paris and back for $227 (on TAP Air Portugal) and round-trips from the U.S. to Melbourne for an eye-popping $353 (on Air Canada). But price alone might not be enough to get folks flying again, says Jennie Blumenthal, an aviation expert at PwC, the consulting firm. About two in five travelers would be willing to pay more to ensure physical distancing on their next flight, according to a PwC survey.

Airlines have taken note, with Delta capping capacity at 60 percent in economy cabins through September. United is giving passengers on flights that are more than 70 percent full the option to change their plans for free. But that flexibility may not last, Cirium’s Rob Morris says. “Once bookings start to look stronger, airlines will turn to flying fewer planes with higher loads,” meaning packing more passengers onto every plane.

One way they’ll do that is by cutting nonstop flights and returning to a hub-and-spoke model that funnels passengers through major airports, as Los Angeles–based writer Julia Seales recently discovered. She flew home to Kentucky for her brother’s wedding this spring. While her ticket from L.A. to Lexington on American Airlines cost about half the price she’s used to paying, she had a longer-than-usual stop in Dallas, where many airport restaurants and shops were closed. Service on her $250 itinerary was scant, she recalls; just a bottle of water and some corn nuts. Still, she enjoyed the trip: “The price was the perk.”

A version of this story first appeared in the September 2020 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline The Pros and Cons of the Pandemic Flying Experience.

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