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Travelers Gear Up for First Normal Summer Since Covid

As summer approaches, there is a distinct note of optimism in the air for both travelers and airlines regarding the upcoming vacation season. This summer will be the first since 2019 that has fully shaken off the deeply damaging effects of the Covid pandemic. As a result, passenger numbers are set to be their highest in years, and travelers will not be beset by the Covid measures that once plagued their flying experience.

Delta’s CEO, Ed Bastian, told CNBC last week of his confidence in this year’s summer surge. He said that even last summer, though the country was far past the worst effects of the pandemic, travel numbers and passenger experience were still not quite the same as they had been before Covid.

Bastian pointed to the additional measures that were still in place then: “if you think about last summer, we were still in a position where people were having to test to get back into the country and other places, and there was a lot of uncertainty around Covid – we’re through all that I think.”

Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta, has expressed resolute optimism in the airline’s summer season. Photo: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The diminishing of this uncertainty means the experience of travel is back to how it was before the Covid years. Infection-reducing measures such as masks, testing, isolating, and contact tracing are no longer in place. Perhaps more importantly, worries surrounding contagion and its risks brought about by travel are now negligible or gone completely. As a result, people are back to planning travel as they did in the years before Covid: unencumbered by anxieties about contagion, isolating and testing, as well as all the related logistical problems they entail.

This feeling is backed up by the figures. Delta company president Glen Hauenstein has reported “record advance bookings for the summer,” with numbers for March up nearly 20% on the levels reported in 2019.

The online travel agency, Expedia, also reported an increase in interest in this summer’s travel. In their Travel Forecast, released last week, the company noted a 25% increase in online flight searches for the period of June through August. According to Melanie Fish, head of Global PR and Expedia Group Brands, “this summer, people are not going to give up on their travel.”

How does this increase in travel expenditure fit into broader consumer spending patterns? Delta’s Bastian has noted a shift in consumer patterns, transitioning out of “certain markets or shifting out of goods and moving into the service world.” American Airlines CEO, Robert Isom, agrees. He told analysts in January, “we expect a strong demand environment to continue in 2023 and anticipate further improvement in demand for long-haul international travel this year.”

As traveler numbers are set to increase, there has also been a shift in trends of popular destinations. The typical domestic vacation spots, such as New York and Los Angeles, remain in demand for 2023 travelers. However, it is international flights that are seeing the biggest year-on-year increase in bookings for June through August. Aside from the perennial favorites of Cancun, London and Rome, this year sees other long-haul destinations such as Auckland, Hong Kong and Osaka also topping the tables. Bastian suggested the reason for this may be that international flights are where “people are trying to get back their experiences that they have lost over the last several years.”

Auckland is one of the most popular destinations of international flights for 2023. Photo: Expedia

The optimism felt by airline chiefs is reflected in their flight scheduling. Data from scheduled flights show the number of seats on American airlines this summer will be up 6% on the figure from 2019, the last summer before the Covid pandemic hit. This upcoming vacation season, 715.6 million seats have been scheduled, compared to the 673.9 million in the summer of 2019.

Such a boom in passenger numbers is of course very welcome news to the aviation industry. However, there remain concerns about the authorities’ ability to deal with such numbers. This follows the Federal Aviation Administration’s unpopular announcement that they would be cutting flight numbers in a bid to prevent delays and to cope with air traffic control staff shortages. But these concerns don’t seem to have put off those planning their vacations, who will jet off in search of a summer of travel - the kind which they’ve not had for four years.

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