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Airline Summer Travel Schedules Are Still Up in the Air Due to Coronavirus

See a great flight for a summertime trip? You can buy it, but it may not be real.

As airlines rebuild schedules amid vaccine-fueled demand, they’ve abandoned historical travel data and are now scheduling in a different way. They are loading “placeholder’’ schedules chock-full of flights into reservation systems six to nine months before departure dates. Then a month or two before flights would actually take off, carriers will load the real schedules.

Flights with lots of reservations will actually happen, and more trips or larger planes may even be added for close-to-departure bookings. Flights with few advance purchases will get canceled, shifting a few customers to other flights.

“In my 20-year career, there’s only one other time I’ve used incoming bookings to plan an airline and that was after the Sept. 11 attacks,’’ says Brian Znotins, American’s vice president of network and schedule planning. “All the airlines have had placeholder schedules out there and then they publish refined schedules as they get closer to it.’’

American, United and Delta all say they will publish their real summer schedules in a few weeks.

Airlines say history is usually a much better predictor of the future than advance bookings, which don’t forecast business travel reserved at the last minute. But with little business travel going on, and an unusual vacation surge under way, “our normal way of looking at demand has really been thrown out the window,” says Joe Esposito, Delta’s senior vice president of network planning.

Advice to travelers: Don’t book tight itineraries, because changes to flights could well be coming. But if you want to travel this summer on low fares, you better book now. Airlines may not be able to rebuild schedules with enough seats to meet the seemingly surging demand for summer trips to popular destinations without too many Covid restrictions.

Airlines say the federal bailout money they received is helping them quickly rebuild networks. Payroll protection funds allowed them to retain pilots and flight attendants, avoiding layoffs and then retraining when crew members returned.

But there are still challenges. It can take a month or three to get planes out of storage and ready to fly. And carriers are finding it challenging to hire workers in cities like Fort Walton Beach, Fla., where expansion has been swift, and get them trained, cleared through background checks and badged.

“Cutting flights is far easier logistically than adding flights,’’ Mr. Znotins says.

Expanding vaccine availability has unleashed massive pent-up travel demand, but despite the excitement, it’s far from a full recovery for airlines. Business travel—where airlines make most of their profit—is still deeply depressed. Vacation travel is still closed off to much of Europe, Asia, South America and Canada.

For summer, airlines will still be smaller systemwide than in 2019. Demand has been steadily increasing, but there still likely won’t be as many people traveling this summer as in pre-pandemic years.

“It’s not like a rocket ship. It’s more like a 737,’’ Ankit Gupta, United’s vice president of domestic network planning and scheduling, says of soaring demand for travel. “Every day the numbers are better and better.’’

In May, United will be about 55% of the size it was in May 2019 in terms of capacity, he says. June and July will be much bigger, but still below 2019 levels. Those schedules will be loaded “in a few weeks,” he says.

American says in May it will be about 75% as big as it was in May 2019, measured in systemwide available seat miles. (A seat mile, the standard of airline capacity, is one seat flown one mile.) Both its Charlotte and Dallas-Fort Worth hubs will be almost as big as 2019, Mr. Znotins says, but other hubs remain reduced by the pandemic.

The carrier will have triple the number of seats this summer to Billings, Mont., compared with 2019. St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands will be up 150%. Cancún—already a big destination—will be 36% bigger than 2019, Mr. Znotins says.

Delta, which has the unique opportunity to increase capacity for sale by 30% by ending its block on middle seats on April 30, says its Salt Lake City hub is already larger than it was in 2019 because of the surge in travel to mountain destinations. Overall, Mr. Esposito says, Delta’s available seat miles —middle seats included—will be 15%-20% fewer this summer than in 2019.

None of the gotta-go surge follows historical travel patterns, so airlines are scrambling to add new flights to meet demand for domestic vacation spots, from Alaska to Montana to Maine, as well as nearby Mexican, Central American and Caribbean beach destinations.

Several big carriers are experimenting with new flights that may well reshape their network strategies long after the pandemic. The lack of business travel has prompted sharp reductions in the number of flights a day from a city to an airline’s big hub. That means airlines have much fewer connections to sell.

So United is trying point-to-point flights from smaller cities directly to suddenly popular leisure destinations—Columbus, Ohio, to Portland, Maine, for example, and St. Louis to Myrtle Beach, S.C. It’s the same kind of strategy carriers like Frontier, Spirit, Allegiant and Southwest employ, but largely unheard of for a big hub-and-spoke carrier like United.

“This is the most creative thing that we have been doing,’’ Mr. Gupta says. “And some of this will continue’’ after business travel returns, he says.

Airlines are also experimenting with new destinations since they still have plenty of aircraft and crews sitting around. American is launching Tel Aviv service from New York and Miami because of high vaccination rates in Israel. “We may not have tried Miami-Tel Aviv without a crisis,’’ Mr. Znotins says. “It was always kind of floating around as something we wanted to look at, something we wanted to try. But we have the opportunity to try it now. And if we get the demand there like we hope, then it will stick around forever.’’

Delta announced service to Iceland as soon as that country said it was opening up to Americans. Delta will try Boston-Reykjavik as well as flights from its hubs at Minneapolis-St. Paul and New York Kennedy.

Airlines are also keeping their fingers crossed for flights to Athens this summer after the Greek government said it would open in mid-May to U.S. travelers who have been vaccinated or have a negative Covid test within three days of arrival. For the rest of Europe, summer isn’t looking good. Jack Ezon, founder of Embark Beyond, a high-end travel adviser in New York, says many of his well-heeled clients are jumping at the chance to get to the Greek islands this summer. “The Florida spring fling is sooo done,’’ he says.

This article originally appeared on Wall Street Journal

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