More people are taking to the skies than at any point since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. And it’s costing them more as a result.
But the end of the federal mask mandate on planes and public transportation could ultimately pose a challenge to the airline industry’s recovery, depending on how it’s received by the public.
Recent consumer price data released by the federal government showed that the price of plane tickets had risen 10.7% between February and March on a seasonally adjusted basis. Compared to a year ago, prices were up by nearly 24%, according to the government’s report, while another report from Adobe showed that airfare prices are 20% above their level in 2019.
Those higher prices aren’t scaring people away. In the first three months of 2022, travelers spent $21 billion purchasing plane tickets for domestic flights online. In all of last year, Americans spent $56 billion on airfares.
Over the past weekend, more than 4.1 million people traveled through U.S. airports, according to data released by the Transportation Security Administration. That’s down less than 6% from the same time period in 2019.
“People are definitely excited to get back out there and travel this spring and summer,” said Sally French a travel expert at personal-finance website NerdWallet. (French is a former employee of MarketWatch.)
Demand is pushing airfares higher
That airfares are up this time of year isn’t a surprise. As French notes, March kicks off the spring break season, which is one of the most popular travel periods of the year. Naturally, airfares are higher as a result.
Between 2012 and 2019, the price of plane tickets was higher in March than in February in all but one year. “There’s just natural seasonality there,” French said.
The difference this year could be whether or not airlines can handle the influx of travelers. Some travel experts have suggested 2022 will see an uptick in “revenge” travel as people look to make up for lost time amid the pandemic. A study from NerdWallet suggests that 70% of Americans are planning to take a leisure trip over the next year, and nearly half of people plan to take two or more trips in that time frame.
“‘Not all flight routes have come back 100%, meaning there are less seats available.’”
— Jordan Staab, CEO of SmarterTravel
“The spike in airfare is almost entirely about demand — as opposed to, say, oil prices,” said Scott Keyes, founder of travel deal website Scott’s Cheap Flights. “Travel has rebounded far quicker than analysts expected.”
Airlines, meanwhile, continue to face operational challenges. “Not all flight routes have come back 100%, meaning there are less seats available — and airlines can sell them for higher prices,” said Jordan Staab, CEO of SmarterTravel.
Many carriers were forced to furlough workers during the height of the pandemic or offer early-retirement packages to crew members. Rehiring that staff has posed a significant hurdle. Some airlines, including Alaska
have cut reduced or cancelled upcoming flights to account for staffing headaches.
“We’ve seen delays snowball into worse delays because pilots and flight attendants can’t get to the airports where they’re supposed to be,” French said. “That’s especially causing problems for busy travel weekends, where travelers can’t get rebooked on other flights because they’re already sold out.”
How the end of the mask mandate will affect demand
Travel experts anticipate that the elimination of the mask mandate for domestic flights won’t have a significant impact on travelers’ interest in flying.
The end of the mandate came late Monday, when a Trump-appointed judge ruled that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had overstepped its authority in recommending a mask mandate. The TSA had imposed the mandate based on the CDC’s recommendations — the agency said Monday it would no longer be enforcing it.
It was a swift end to the mandate, which had just been extended for an additional few weeks days earlier. Airlines quickly ended their policies requiring passengers and crew to wear masks — in some cases making the announcements after planes had already taken off.
“A survey from The Harris Poll and Forbes found that 60% of Americans supported extending the federal mask mandate.”
Though some reported hearing cheers from passengers about being able to go mask-less, recent survey data suggests that the mandate was popular. A survey conducted by The Harris Poll and Forbes found that 60% of Americans supported extending the mask mandate for public transportation, and 32% said they strongly supported the move. Comparatively, only 19% of people surveyed said they were strongly against the mandate’s extension.
“Though masks may not be as common as they once were in America, passengers are likely to seek the safety and security of mask wearing while in such close proximity to other passengers for the foreseeable future,” the report noted.
A separate report from Morning Consult, though, did show that support for the mandate has slipped since January, though a majority of people surveyed still backed the measure. That study found that only about half of Americans were comfortable flying these days.
“Demand may be balanced out by a drop in travel from people who were only comfortable traveling with masks,” Staab said, adding that when the U.K. dropped its mask requirement for domestic flights there was not a large surge in interest in air travel across the pond.