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The future of travel, according to Scott Keyes of Scott’s Cheap Flights

(Oscar Garcia)

Getting a flight email alert from Scott’s Cheap Flights can feel like getting an insider tip from a friend. And that’s exactly how his service began, with founder Scott Keyes sending flight deals to his social network as a hobby.

Before his name became synonymous with flight deals, Keyes was working as a journalist in Washington, D.C., racking up frequent flier miles from work trips. It was during this time that Keyes says he became obsessed with scouring message boards for tips on finding flight deals.

Word spread that Keyes was something of a flight-savings guru, particularly after he found a round-trip fare from New York to Milan for $130 in 2013. The recipient list for his emails kept expanding, and by the summer of 2015 his mailing list reached 5,000 people.

Needing to cover the cost of upgrading his newsletter software as demand for his service increased, Keyes started offering a premium version of his international flight deal alerts for $2 a month. The paying recipients list grew and grew, as did the resulting workload, and after Keyes saw his side hustle income consistently outpace his regular salary, he decided to make Scott’s Cheap Flights his full-time job.

Today, Scott’s Cheap Flights is a full-fledged business with a CEO (who is not Keyes), 37 full-time employees and nearly 2 million members. With the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, the company has started featuring domestic deals for its premium members (who now pay about $4 a month).

Keyes recently spoke to The Washington Post about the fate of airline fares, what’s going to happen to change fees and how he became a white knight for thousands of people during the pandemic.

(Editor’s note: This Q&A is the fourth in a weekly series from By The Way, in which we interview prominent voices in the industry on the future of travel. It has been edited for clarity and length.)

It’s pretty beneficial that your team was already all remote. In terms of the future, how do you think the pandemic is going to change your business? Will this change Scott’s Cheap Flights?

The short answer is probably yes. Our fortunes are certainly tied to the overall travel industry’s fortunes. If people aren’t interested in traveling, it’s hard for Scott’s Cheap Flights to do a lot about that.

But I am certainly hopeful and cautiously optimistic, not just about the future of the vaccine and therapeutics and all that, but also, I’m quite bullish about the enduring appeal of travel.

The initial thought was like, “Oh, the office will never come back. Everybody is going to be working from home always because now we see we can do it.” But I think for a lot of people, this experience has really shown them “I need to get back to the office, I miss my co-workers.”

I think there is a sort of similar trajectory with the hot takes on travel. People being so cooped up and so deprived of the things that they really love has underscored for many folks just how much they want to be able to do that again.

Obviously nobody wants to feel like they’re risking their life to get on an airplane or go to an amusement park, but once it doesn’t feel like that … I think it’s going to bounce back much quicker than people realize, because people will feel like [they] need to make up for lost time.

Travel is a unique thing where you will plan it many months before you actually take advantage of it. You don’t make a restaurant reservation nine months ahead of time, but you might book a flight nine months ahead of time because that’s when it’s cheap, because that way you can start to make other plans.

We basically all know that from the day a vaccine is approved that it’s going to take however many months for it to start to really get widely distributed.

I think that the delay in the approval versus the distribution of the vaccine might actually give an early boost to travelers, because they can start to feel confident in making future plans again.

Scott, with his dog Chela at Badlands National Park. (Scott Keyes)

I agree with you that people will always have a thirst to travel. But people are saying that because airlines might have to do social distancing procedures, or people aren’t flying right now, that flights may be more expensive and therefore less accessible to people. How do you feel about that?

Here’s why I am cautiously optimistic.

First off, the way that the airline industry dynamics have changed over the past five years especially have resulted in us living in the golden age of cheap flights. Those dynamics that cause flights to be cheap for the years leading up to now still exist, and are going to still exist for the next two years, at least.

I sympathize with the worry that social distancing may impact fares, but the fact is, there are so many planes right now that are not flying. They’re just sitting in a desert in Arizona, not doing anything.

As people’s demand to get back in the air starts to increase, those planes are going to be there to meet the demand. Because there’s so much slack on the supply side, that means that prices aren’t really going to go up. Consumer demand would have to really rebound sharply … for that to start to impact airfare in a negative way.

What’s the main thing that airlines can do to try to entice people back on planes? It’s offering cheap prices, because they know that’s the main thing that people are [basing] a purchasing decision on — so long as travelers feel confident they’re not risking their life to get on board.

The third thing is the price of oil. It is extremely low, certainly by historical standards. I mention this because jet fuel is, for most airlines, the No. 2 expense. It’s incredibly important to their bottom line. So when it’s 80 percent lower than it was a decade ago, that’s part of the reason why we’ve been in the golden age of cheap flights, and [it’s] part of the savings that gets passed on to consumers in the form of lower ticket prices.

The factors that I’m most watching in terms of what could potentially put upward pressure on fares, first off, what happens with business travel and corporate travel? That’s one of the main drivers of airline profits and that has basically gone down to zero lately. The second question is are there any major airlines that either go bust or merge or consolidate with another airline?

After that, it’s mostly a medical question. What does the future of the pandemic look like if it’s still raging in 2021 like it is in 2020, and there’s not much hope on a medical or vaccine side? Then all bets are off at that point.

During the pandemic you sort of became this white knight for travelers who were getting taken advantage of dealing with nightmare airline customer service portals, trying to get a refunds during all of this. How have you felt in this new role?

We have so many things to worry about in our daily life, especially right now in a pandemic ⁠ — how could you expect somebody to be an expert on the minutiae of airline refund rules and Department of Transportation regulations?

The fact that the airlines were behaving so poorly and really trying to take advantage of the general public’s lack of expertise or ignorance on the finer points of airline reform law told me we need to try to use our platform to help not only educate people about what their rights are, but also help advocate that airlines do better.

Can you guess how many people you replied to about refunds during this time?

It’s got to be thousands. It’s like 95 percent of the discussions that we have [are] on Twitter, and then we’re getting hundreds, thousands of emails as well that are happening behind the scenes.

It’s the main thing on people’s mind, rightfully so. I mean, look, it’s nobody’s fault obviously that a pandemic erupted, but it’s also not the same as a normal cancellation where you might have just decided, “Oh, I just don’t want to take that trip anymore.”

Public health experts say it’s unsafe to travel. Countries are closing their borders. Countries and places are adding mandatory quarantines. It’s completely unreasonable that people would be traveling right now. And so, it’s a situation where I think refunds are rightfully owed.

Do you think any of the changes that we’ve seen so far will hold over after the pandemic?

We talked about the low fares that I think are going to continue for a while, for at least the next couple of years.

I think the enhanced cleanings [are here to stay]. Now that the cleanliness and hygiene is the difference between people traveling or not, rather than just feeling a little grossed out, all of a sudden it becomes priority number one for airlines.

The things that I think are not here to stay: blocked middle seating, capacity control. Those are only going to last until we start to see a significant rebound in travel demand and in new bookings.

The other thing that I wish is here to stay, but I think is probably unlikely, is the free changes on new bookings.

Right now, in an attempt to try to gin up new bookings, the airlines have said that all new tickets automatically waive the change fees. That is very different from what the airlines have done for years, where there have been two, three, four hundred dollar fees just to change a ticket.

But I think once bookings start to really pick up again, and once it starts to feel like it’s costing them more revenue than it’s generating for them, they’re going to take it away.

Read more:

A senator wants to ban middle seats after finding himself on a packed flight during the pandemic

Travel brands rushed to post #BlackLivesMatter but are slow to share how they’re taking action

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