What’s Going on with Airfare During the Pandemic?

Photo by Scott's Cheap Flights

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (July 27, 2020) – From price drops to sharp increases, airfare has fluctuated in a way that can leave many travelers confused, but what is causing these price changes? Scott’s Cheap Flights emailed over 2 million members this week to discuss what exactly has been going on since the travel industry was turned upside down.

Even in the best of times, airfare can be confusing. Airlines can normally count on a good chunk of any given flight’s revenue coming from last-minute bookings, especially from business travelers. However, in mid-March, when COVID-19’s severity became apparent, bookings dropped to near zero. With planes still scheduled to fly half-empty, and airlines knowing business travel had vanished overnight, this is when $26 roundtrip coast to coast flights and $168 flights to Europe began to appear.

“There were also lots of mistake fares during this time, like $23 roundtrip to Puerto Rico and $210 roundtrip to Chile, as airlines slashed their flight schedules,” says Scott’s Cheap Flights’ Andrew Hickey. “In the process, they made a few unfortunate pricing errors.”

There are 3 broad trends happening with airfare at the moment:

Domestic Deals are Flush

After launching domestic flight service this month, Scott’s Cheap Flights is finding domestic deals 75% off their normal prices every day. That’s because airlines have shifted much of their flying to domestic, recognizing that that’s where travel demand is right now.

Photo by Scott’s Cheap Flights

International Deals are Sparse

Fewer overseas flights = fewer deals. The additional domestic flight capacity came largely from planes that had been flying internationally. With lower demand for international travel, airlines just aren’t competing on flights abroad like they had last year.

“We’re still finding plenty of cheap international flights for travel well down the line,” says Hickey. “Just not quite as many as before.”

Last-Minute Flights are Unusually Cheap

With business travel largely sidelined, there are far more last-minute deals than there are in normal times.

As for what will happen after a vaccine is made available, Hickey has two guesses:

Cheap Flights Will Continue

“As Scott’s Cheap Flights members know well, for the past five years we’ve been living in the Golden Age of Cheap Flights,” says Hickey. “There are many economic forces causing this, from frequent flyer programs becoming money-printing machines to jet fuel becoming far cheaper than it used to be. These forces aren’t going away.”

Photo by Scott’s Cheap Flights

In addition, airlines have many planes sitting in desert airfields, including the 737 MAX, which may return later this year, that they can bring back quickly to meet demand and keep fares low.

International Deals Will be Slower to Return

When consumer demand for international travel rebounds, so too will the number of planes flying those routes and, as such, the number of deals. But that demand could lag for a while.

For years before the pandemic, there had been a surge in international travel, enticing airlines to compete heavily and slash fares. When the pandemic hit, international travel virtually disappeared.

“Once a vaccine is approved and distributed, my guess is it will take years for many people to feel comfortable traveling abroad again,” says Hickey.

The good news is that, even if the overall quantity of overseas deals remains lower for some time, there will still be plenty to choose from. When international travel begins to return, the main airlines have to try to entice vacationers with slash fares.

Photo by Scott’s Cheap Flights

Hickey says there are two common mistakes in thinking about airfare: assuming fares are static, and assuming fares gradually increase or decrease. Far from static, flight prices are more volatile than just about anything else we buy.

“The example I always remember is a roundtrip flight from Atlanta to Amsterdam that was $800 when we searched on Monday, $300 when we searched on Tuesday, and $1300 when we searched on Wednesday, for the same flight and the same dates,” says Hickey. “If the flight you want is expensive today, your best bet is often to wait. Today’s price may have little predictive power of tomorrow’s price.”

A May survey by veteran LGBTQ research firm Community Marketing & Insights (CMI) yielded data from an online survey of 1,864 self-identified members of America’s LGBTQ community, ages 20-70. The report found 69% of participants “indicated extreme or moderate pent-up desire to travel again for vacation”, although, at the time, 72% of the travelers in the study had already canceled a vacation in 2020 because of COVID-19, with cancellations being strongest for the March-July period.

Of those who took a vacation in 2019, 68% plan to take at least one overnight vacation trip during the remainder of 2020, including 42% planning two or more vacations.

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Brian Sullivan is a reporter for Out & About Nashville. He has served nearly 2 decades in the television industry, with over 20 years experience as a print and broadcast journalist. Sullivan is an Emmy Award Winning producer, writer, lobbyist, activist and marketing strategist. He is active in several campaigns raising awareness in addiction treatment, equality and mental healthcare. He received recognition as a Nashville Emerging Leader of the Year at the NELA Awards. He is an Executive Board Member of the Prevention Alliance of Tennessee, a member of DrugFree Wilco, the Williamson County Anti-Drug Coalition, the Memphis Area Prevention Alliance, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Facing Addiction, Fed Up!, the Nashville Chamber of Commerce, the Nashville LGBT Chamber of Commerce, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the Center for Nonprofit Management, Music City Theatre Company, LGBTQI Nashvillians of Faith, Covenant of the Cross Ministries, Human Rights Campaign, HRC Nashville, Team Friendly Tennessee, Tennessee Equality Project, Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition, Wilson County Anti-Drug Coalition, National Fraternal Order of Police, the Nashville Filmmakers Guild and is an ordained Minister. Sullivan is a proud donor of the Memphis Hope House, Nashville Cares, Covenant Cupboard Food Pantry, and Second Harvest Food Bank. He has worked extensively on projects with several major networks including Fox News Network, CNN, Time Magazine, Washington Post, New York Times, Inside Edition and Mic.