Vacationers drive travel rebound; flights filling up to Florida, other outdoor destinations

Mar 15, 2021

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With an accelerated vaccine rollout underway, demand for travel is making a rebound.

Friday, March 12, 2021, marked a new pandemic-era record for the number of passengers screened by TSA. Since the onset of the pandemic, TSA throughput has eclipsed 1 million just a handful of times, usually around holidays and other long weekends.

But Friday’s record has been a few weeks in the making. Recent screening data suggests that travelers are returning to the skies, with average TSA screenings topping nearly 870,000 daily passengers, up significantly from the height of the pandemic.

Of course, the latest highs are likely boosted by spring break vacations at schools across the country. Unlike the spring break of 2020, there’s a nationwide improvement in COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations. Plus, the accelerated vaccine rollout has many starting to plan future trips.

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Until now, airlines have matched supply to the limited demand. They’ve parked planes, grounded flight crews and trimmed schedules.

But as demand starts picking up, the airlines are noticing — and are adjusting capacity accordingly.

Take a look at the recent route-map shake-ups across the major U.S. airlines. One common theme is the push to outdoor-friendly, leisure-focused destinations with plenty of built-in social distancing. Pandemic-weary travelers are seeking beach vacations and hiking trips, instead of escapes to major cities.

Cirium schedules show that the capacity to Florida — one of the most popular pandemic-era destinations — is up over 22% in the first quarter of 2021, compared to the fourth quarter of 2020.

South Florida, in particular, has seen significant capacity growth. For the same period, Fort Lauderdale (FLL) and Miami (MIA) have seen 20% and 30% growth quarter-over-quarter, respectively.

Other airports, like Key West (EYW) and Pensacola (PNS) have received a host of new airline routes, contributing to the 45% and 8% quarter-over-quarter capacity growth, respectively.

It’s not just the supply of flights that’s steadily increasing. Data from travel app Hopper shows that travelers are increasingly looking to book new flights.

Related: American Airlines shifts focus from Canada to the Caribbean through 2021

From Feb. 28 to March 1, there was a 22% increase in searches for domestic flights, with a focus on summer travel. For the week ending on March 14, the Airlines Reporting Corp. reported a 56.5% decrease in ticket variance, which corresponds to the total number of airline tickets purchased compared to the same time period in 2019. While 56.5% is still significant, it’s a marked improvement compared to the 90% or higher decrease at the height of the pandemic.

Hopper data confirms that Americans are looking for outdoor-focused destinations, including cities in Colorado, Montana, South Carolina and others. In fact, the top three domestic destinations trending in search demand include cities like Orlando, Myrtle Beach, Kalispell, all of which have attracted new airline service during the pandemic.

This recent growth in travel demand has led some flights, especially those during peak weekend times, to be sold out. Leisure travelers have historically purchased tickets at least two weeks in advance.

A crowded Fort Lauderdale airport on Feb. 16, 2021 (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Those waiting for the last minute might find that there are limited seats available. For instance, a search for flights between New York and South Florida for the Easter weekend yielded fares that start at over $300 each way, with just a handful of seats remaining.

As travelers are once again taking to the skies and airlines are getting better at forecasting COVID-era travel demand, the U.S. carriers might start being cash-positive once again.

Related: United Airlines boosts Denver hub in 4-route Florida expansion

At Monday’s J.P. Morgan Industrials Conference, United CEO Scott Kirby said that the airline expects to halt its cash burn starting this month, a major milestone in the return to profitability — and perhaps the biggest indicator yet that travelers are returning.

But not all travelers are created equally. Pre-pandemic, airlines made the most revenue on long-haul international and business-focused trips. Both segments have yet to return, according to American Airlines CEO Doug Parker at Monday’s investor conference.

As the airlines have said time and again, demand recovery won’t be linear. The latest trends are looking up, thanks to the nationwide spring break and accelerated vaccine rollouts.

But if virus mutations emerge and new lockdown orders are announced, much of this recovery can be wiped away in the blink of an eye.

Featured photo by Philip Pilosian/Shutterstock

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