When will air travel return to 2019 levels?

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When the COVID-19 crisis grew into a pandemic in early 2020, the world, quite literally, started shutting down. In this rapid shutdown, the travel industry nearly came to a complete halt. Hotels closed, flights were canceled and few people left their homes in hopes of keeping safe from the virus and preventing its spread. While the economy as a whole has been greatly impacted by COVID-19, the airline industry has taken an especially nasty hit. 

Not only were many flights canceled, but the industry lost heaps of money from the dearth of travelers in the sky. Those who have been flying are experiencing a much different time on a plane than ever before — empty seats, masks required and even temperature checks in some places.

We’re now six months into the pandemic and seeing a positive outlook in some parts of the world as growth of the outbreak decelerates, but the airline industry is still deeply suffering from the effects of COVID-19 and will continue to for years. Airlines for America, a major airline trade association, has been closely monitoring the industry through the pandemic. It estimates it will be until at least 2023 before we see pre-pandemic travel levels return. Let’s take a closer look at how we got to this point and what the future may look like.  

How has COVID-19 affected airlines?

Katherine Estep, a spokesperson for Airlines for America, shared that prior to COVID-19, air travel was flourishing, to say the least.

“Prior to this global health crisis, U.S. airlines were transporting a record 2.5 million passengers and 58,000 tons of cargo each day,” Estep told Million Mile Secrets. “As travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders were implemented, demand for air travel declined sharply. At its lowest point in late April, passenger volumes were down 96% to a level not seen since before the dawn of the jet age (in the 1950s).”

An American Airlines employee stands among empty ticketing kiosks at LAX airport. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

With the sharp decline in passengers traveling, the airline industry rapidly lost money, leading to sweeping layoffs. Fortune estimates around 70,000 employees of major airlines have seen their jobs eliminated since the pandemic started, and it’s likely not the end. According to Airlines for America, U.S. airlines are collectively burning through $5 billion in cash every month, down from $10 billion in March, and while that number may continue to decrease slightly each month, it’s still a significant enough loss that it will take years to recover.

Airlines have accepted tens of billions of dollars in government aid, in the form of grants and loans, to help keep the industry afloat. If additional aid is not passed, major airlines like American and Delta say they will be forced to cut thousands of staff in the fall.

Airlines for America’s report shows that New York has seen the largest number of flight reductions, and passenger travel to Hawaii is nearly nonexistent. In the week ending Aug. 16, the average domestic flight had just 58 people on it, compared to 99 during the same week last year.

The Transportation Security Administration records the number of passengers who pass through security at airports and the difference in numbers from this year compared to last is staggering. This August, there are roughly between 500,000 and 900,000 passengers each day, however, during August 2019, those numbers never dipped below 2.1 million. At its worst, airlines are seeing just 23% of passengers as they were this time last year.

When will air travel return to pre-pandemic levels?

The airline industry is bleeding money right now — it will take years to make it back and fully recuperate. Estep noted that it took the airline industry three years to bounce back from 9/11 and seven years to recover from the 2008 financial crisis.

“This crisis hit a robust industry at lightning speed, but recovery will not be as swift. Our industry has never experienced a V-shaped recovery,” Estep said. She added that the airline industry will no doubt emerge smaller than it was a year ago. 

At this point, airlines are relying on a vaccine for COVID-19, as that begins the process of people feeling more comfortable with traveling. Until there’s a vaccine many people will be hesitant to book flights, even with all the safety measures the airline industry is taking right now, like requiring masks, constantly sanitizing planes and attempting social distancing on flights

Airlines for America expects it to be well into 2021 for a vaccine to be developed and distributed, which pushes the ultimate recovery to at least 2023. Not only will airlines have to make up for the debt they’re currently taking on, but will also have to “address the sizable associated interest expense,” according to the study. 

Bottom line

We most likely won’t see air travel return to pre-pandemic levels until at least 2023 and even then, flying may still not look the same. Airlines are working to make air travel as safe as possible in hopes it will get people to return to the skies. But if you’re waiting for a vaccine and a more conventional travel experience, don’t hold your breath, it will likely be years before “normal” returns.

Hedy Phillips is a contributor to Million Mile Secrets, she covers topics on points and miles, credit cards, airlines, hotels, and general travel.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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