May 26, 2021
I’m not a nervous flyer. But the current state of flying has me with a metaphorical death grip on my figurative armrest. Pandemonium—or at least confusion and disorder—in the sky right now is unlike anything my sixty years of flying experience has prepared me for. I am talking about the uncertainty of international and domestic travel planning which I’ve written about again and again recently (nothing has improved since), and now, in one fell swoop, Belarus has upset the sanctity of commercial flyovers with the downing of a plane for wholly political reasons.
When I read about the Ryanair plane being forced to land on the whim of a dictator, my mind went immediately to the great many countries unfriendly to Americans that I have overflown at one time or another—if not outright hostile, at least ones I’d prefer not to land in: Iran, Zaire (now Congo), Saudi Arabia, Angola, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya (when Gaddafi ruled it), Russia, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Oman, and Mozambique.
I guess I should add Belarus to that list, too, as I’ve more than once looked down from 30,000 feet onto Belarusian land as we passed over. This week’s action there opens Pandora’s box for other countries to do the same—a troubling precedent. Just one more jolting departure from the heretofore predictable norms of flying commercial.
Which brings me back to contemplate the utter confusion and unpredictability of all matters related to planning international travel in the pandemic crisis environment. Nothing is certain any more. I’ve moaned constantly this year about my struggles to plan several upcoming trips to South Africa’s Kruger National Park, a place I’ve routinely visited for 31 years with no travel drama. I still don’t have answers to my questions posed through official channels to the South African embassy in Washington regarding basic requirements for entry like travel insurance for possible quarantining. The fact that I am fully vaccinated holds no water for South Africa or for any country I want to fly to.
Here in the US of A, a half century of dependable rules guiding travel are in flux. Despite the strong comeback in leisure travel (predicted to be at or near 100% of 2019 numbers this summer), business travel—the principal source of airline profits until Covid hit—is at 20-25% of 2019 numbers and expected to lag for at least another year. That inverts what I call the “revenue value spectrum” in the airline industry, meaning leisure travelers are now in the catbird seat with airline marketing departments, biz travelers not so much.
The corollary to the present upside-down passenger numbers is that the cosmic dearth in airline seat supply (caused by airlines grounding aircraft and crews during the pandemic) compared to the surging demand for seats is giving airlines leisure fare pricing power for the first time since 1978’s deregulation. In other words, leisure fares are soaring. I wouldn’t be surprised if the airlines don’t price leisure fares well above cost until business travel begins to return. I am therefore glad I bought my tickets well in advance; doing so got me ahead of the fare rises.
If leisure travel continues to far outpace business flying, that could be one good thing for hard-bitten frequent flyers like me because we’ll be competing for first class upgrades against a smaller number of elite travelers. Maybe I’ll actually get to use some of the 40-odd 500-mile upgrades up to now lying useless in my American Airlines AAdvantage account.
The current chaotic environment could also be good for me if the airlines lower front cabin fares to attract the fewer biz flyers out there even as they raise coach fares. I’d bite on paying for first class if sharp end prices fall. However, that’s sheer speculation (and hope) on my part based on reason, and airfare levels aren’t set by logic. Delta’s fares RDU/JNB six to nine months out are an example of that inflexibility. Even “Premium Select” (Delta’s version of Premium Economy) remains $800 more than United’s in the market, and the Delta One business cabin fare is in the stratosphere.
Constancy of air travel norms like safety, security, and reasonably narrow fare ranges has been the bedrock of my business and leisure travel decisions. I require reliable predictability of those elements to guide my planning and to control my costs, without which my confidence wanes. Though I can’t always quantify the precise risk tipping point that governs my choices regarding personal wellbeing and affordability, what’s been happening lately in the airline world gives me pause. When will air travel stabilize? I wish I knew.