‘Pandemic fatigue’: Pent-up demand is driving holiday flight bookings despite COVID-19 spikes

Planning to fly somewhere for Thanksgiving or Christmas?

Your flights might be fuller than you’d expect during a pandemic.

Airline after airline has reported encouraging holiday booking signs in the past two weeks – a welcome boost during a year of devastating financial losses – and executives appear confident ticket sales won’t dive like they did in early July amid an increase in cases of coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.

Budget carrier Allegiant Air told investors Wednesday the blows from COVID-19 spikes have gradually decreased throughout the year, a trend reported by other airlines, including giant Southwest.

“Based both on what our customers are saying and what our customers are doing, we see a clear divergence in terms of their attitudes toward the pandemic and their intentions towards leisure air travel,” said Scott DeAngelo, Allegiant’s chief marketing officer. “That is to say, customers believe the situation may once again be getting worse, but their leisure travel activity or their travel booking intent remains largely unchanged.”

United CEO Scott Kirby told CNBC on Thursday that bookings have “flatlined a little bit” due to rising case counts but said he still expected “pretty strong” holiday travel demand.

JetBlue Airways CEO Robin Hayes was so bullish about slowly improving travel demand and holiday booking trends on the airline’s earnings call Tuesday that an airline analyst asked if his script was written a week earlier.

Here’s why: the U.S. set a record last week with 500,000 new coronavirus cases over a seven-day period, according to analysis of Johns Hopkins University data. USA TODAY found that 47 states reported more cases than in the week before.

Things aren’t much improved this week, either: as of Sunday, 18 states had set records for new cases in a week while five states reported a record number of deaths in a week. 

More than seven months into the pandemic, some states – including most of the Northeast – still have travel quarantines remain in place. New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio has even urged residents not to travel out of state for the holidays for fear of inviting a second wave of coronavirus.

Read before your road trip: These states require travelers to self-quarantine or present a negative COVID-19 test

He’s not the only civic leader making that plea.

“I am not planning to travel this Thanksgiving unless we see significant improvements” in case trends, Dr. Allison Arwady, Chicago Public Health Commissioner, said at a news conference this week. “I would encourage you – especially if you normally are getting together with people who are older or have underlying health conditions – to think seriously about whether this is the year for travel.”

The U.S.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not wavered from its longtime stance on travel during the pandemic: “Travel increases your chances of getting and spreading COVID-19. Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.”

Airlines cite several reasons for their optimism, while acknowledging the situation is fluid, and trends could shift anytime.

Pent-up demand for travel

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