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Planning to fly for the holidays? 6 things to know before you book

September 19, 2020, 1:00 PM UTC
The ongoing pandemic is likely to mean fewer flights, altered schedules and dropped destinations over the holidays, writes Dean Headley. (Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
David Paul Morris—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Whether it’s to see family or just to get away for a little vacation, holiday travel for many Americans means hopping a flight in November, December, or January. And traditionally, right around now is when many people start looking for deals.

This year? It’s going to take a while for the public to feel comfortable boarding a plane in a pandemic, much less booking a flight for an uncertain future.

Still, with planes having been flying at only about 30% of capacity, travelers have room and reason to consider taking to the skies this holiday season, normally the most congested time of year. They just have to be ready to navigate a changed industry.

Most visibly, of course, U.S. airlines have effectively implemented COVID-19 protocols: maintaining social distance, requiring facial coverings, disinfecting surfaces, and guarding air quality. Prices for the holidays should be attractive, given that airlines need to boost demand. Even with an increase in volume, the system has space to absorb more passengers and still perform well.

For those willing to buy a ticket, the flying future is shifting in more dramatic ways, too—for this season and beyond.

First, the industry faces challenges over the size of its operations during this unprecedented and extended period of low demand for air travel. Starting Oct. 1, several airlines will be laying off or furloughing thousands of pilots, cabin attendants, and ground personnel. 

This ultimately translates to fewer airplanes and routes being available. In its attempt to reduce costs and operating expenses to match diminished demand, the industry will have less choice and availability for travelers. On the plus side, a smaller system has historically always performed more punctually and with fewer baggage-handling mishaps.  

Booking flights now, before the reductions take effect, could bring headaches. While many airlines are waiving change fees, it won’t matter if your flight destination is no longer available at any time. On the other hand, waiting to book a flight may not cost more this year, but there is a real possibility that you may not reach your destination without added travel segments and travel time. 

Best practices for holiday air-travel booking

My advice: Consider the prospects of fewer flights, altered schedules, and dropped destinations when thinking about holiday travel. Here are a few more best practices for air travel—many of which can ease travel stress in these uncertain times: 

  • Don’t act out of fear; act from a sense of personal responsibility for yourself and those around you. Socially distance, wear a mask, wash your hands, and use sanitizing solutions. 
  • Airlines do not guarantee their schedules, and you should keep this in mind when planning your trip. Recheck the departure and arrival times of your flights a few days before your trip; schedules sometimes change.
  • Using a travel agent can help explore the changing options available. A small fee upfront is often worth it when plans go wrong. Having an experienced travel agent on your side can help de-stress the situation and save the day.
  • When selecting a flight, remember that a departure early in the day is less likely to be delayed than a later flight, because of ripple effects throughout the day. If you book the last flight of the day, you could get stuck overnight. Allow plenty of time to make connecting flights. Leave extra time between connections if possible, just in case flights are delayed and flight schedules get changed.
  • If you have a choice between two connections and the fares and service are equivalent, choose the one with the less-congested connecting airport. This reduces the risk of misconnecting. Also consider potential adverse seasonal weather when choosing a connecting city.
  • It is wise to pay for airfare by credit card. It provides certain protections under federal credit regulations. When a refund is due, the airline must forward a credit to your card company within seven business days.

Farther down the line, after the pandemic, it’s distinctly possible that some airlines could go under. That slashed demand has hovered around 30% of capacity for months now. Airlines are in serious financial straits. 

At the same time, it’s not clear how much more airline industry consolidation, bankruptcy, or company closures this country can stand or the flying public will tolerate. 

About three years passed before the industry reached full flight function after 9/11, and it’s likely to take longer now, given this prolonged crisis and profound patterns in demand. Our collective caution, after all, is for good reason: the public’s greater interest and safety.

We should brace for the consequences.

Dean Headley, coauthor of the Airline Quality Rating, is associate professor emeritus in the W. Frank Barton School of Business at Wichita State University.