Fine, a retired financial services manager from Concord, Calif., is loyal to United Airlines. But United recently ended its contract with regional carrier ExpressJet, which could put that carrier out of business. United also says it could cut up to 45 percent of its workforce after Oct. 1.
“I realize that cutting back staff by half doesn’t necessarily mean that half their flights will be canceled,” says Fine, who is making travel plans for later this year. “But prices seem better than usual now. Should I find a ticket on another airline?”
Oct. 1 will be a day of reckoning for the airline industry: Airlines will then be free to start downsizing. American and Delta are also reportedly planning layoffs this year, as are smaller carriers like Alaska Airlines and JetBlue. Only Southwest Airlines has said it doesn’t expect any layoffs or furloughs through the end of the year.
Air travel this fall may cost less, but it could be risky to book this far in advance, industry observers say. The busy holidays — Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s — loom large, with lots of potential for disruption. The best way to avoid it is through careful planning now.
“Travel later in the year will certainly be an adventure for passengers and airlines alike,” says Dean Headley, an emeritus professor of marketing at Wichita State University and co-author of the Airline Quality Rating. “Booking now carries a clear risk of having your flight not being operated when the time comes to travel as airlines downsize.”
So is it safe to book a flight after Oct. 1? Yes and no. In the near term, passengers may notice few or no changes. But later in the year, you may see a reduction in the number of flights, and some airlines could go out of business.
Booking a flight after Oct. 1 has its risks — and rewards. Eugene Levin is considering a flight this fall. He thinks fares will be low, and that’s not just a hunch. As the chief strategic officer at SEMrush, a Web analytics company, he has seen online searches for airfares plummet an astonishing 45 percent since the start of the pandemic. “This is going to be a buyer’s market,” he says.
The risks are obvious, and they’re not just tied to the health of the airline. They’re tied to your health. Projections suggest that coronavirus cases will spike in the fall, says Onyema Ogbuagu, a Yale Medicine infectious-disease doctor and associate professor at the university.
“I’m wary of booking any flights to travel in October or until the end of the year,” Ogbuagu says.
But what happens when you have a ticket for, say Thanksgiving, and your airline decides to cancel the flight?
Things could turn chaotic quickly. An airline that’s aggressively downsizing over the holidays could unleash hundreds of thousands of displaced air travelers on the other airlines, wreaking havoc the likes of which we haven’t seen. What’s more, airlines have done their best to avoid paying out refunds for canceled flights, despite being required to do so by federal law. It’s not a question of whether this scenario will unfold, but of how catastrophic it will be.
The best way to deal with it is to avoid it. Flying during the holidays is pure folly, particularly this year. But if you go, you’ll want to review your itinerary carefully to make sure it’s cancellation-proof, experts say.
Erik Shor, a vice president at Travel and Transport, a corporate travel agency, says you should check the desired flight to see whether it’s operating between now and your travel date.
“In the covid environment, airlines are adding flights back to schedules slowly and based on firm demand,” he explains. “If a flight is scheduled to return to operation in October and demand is weak, it could very well be pulled from the schedule several weeks out.”
For flights operating regularly in the months leading up to your departure date, you’re probably okay.
But should you cancel a flight scheduled for October or beyond? No, say industry watchers like Shane Chapman, the senior vice president of airline industry relations for Ovation Travel Group. He says airlines have already reduced their schedules to meet the reduced demand.
“Passengers booking for October and beyond shouldn’t see a huge reduction in flights as the airlines are currently operating a much smaller fleet than in the past,” Chapman says. But later in the year, he expects some schedule adjustments, as the airlines try to figure out when and where to increase or decrease service.
His advice: Always check your flight on the carrier’s website two to three weeks out for any schedule changes, and, again, two to three days before departure. This will give you time to adjust other arrangements to a new schedule. And if the airline cancels or reschedules your flight, and you decide not to travel, remember that it owes you a prompt and full refund.
For his part, Fine is determined to continue with his vacation plans. He wants to visit his kids and grandkids on the East Coast this year and to collect his United reward miles, if possible. If the experts are correct, he’ll be just fine.
Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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