How expensive will air travel be after the Covid-19 crisis?

Alexandre de Juniac of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) says the coronavirus pandemic will end the days of cheap flights.

Posted: May 23, 2020 7:41 AM
Updated: May 23, 2020 7:41 AM

When the state of Florida began enacting stay-at-home measures and closing beaches in mid-March, in response to the threat of Covid-19, Miami-based real estate agent and artist Nadia Bouzid was in the middle of painting a mural inside a new hotel in Cancun, Mexico.

Putting down the paintbrush, she picked up her phone and began searching airfares to return home.

"I watched a seat on the flight I wanted go from $200 to $70, to $350," Bouzid tells CNN Travel. "I booked it and flew, but the flight was spookily empty. I was panicking, and the changing price made me wonder how much I'd be paying to return to finish my work, when all this is over."

As countries formulate plans towards reopening borders and businesses, and airlines begin to see a return of passenger traffic, Bouzid's question is pertinent. What will airfares be like, when "all this" is over?

Social distancing means fewer seats sold, so will airfares go higher?

Delta Air Lines is blocking middle seats and capping flight loads through June 30 for social distancing, allowing only 50 to 60% of available seats on a flight to be booked. Other airlines adopting similar controls include Emirates, American Airlines, Japan Airlines, United and more.

Many other airlines are allowing bookings as normal, with one going so far as attempting to have passengers pay to observe social distancing. On May 4, ultra-low-cost US carrier Frontier Airlines announced a "More Room" fee, purchasable for flights between May 8 and August 31. With this fee, a passenger could pay from $39 each way to guarantee that the middle seat stays unoccupied.

The fee lasted all of 48 hours; late on May 6, the airline rescinded the plan after it received criticism from members of the United States Congress.

"We recognize the concerns raised that we are profiting from safety and this was never our intent," Frontier CEO Barry Biffle said in a letter to the lawmakers.

Nonetheless, it's IATA, the global airline trade association, that wants to have the last word on the issue of social distancing on aircraft. Its May 5 press release advocates against forcing airlines to block middle seats.

"IATA is essentially saying that airlines' financial health matters more than the health of their employees or customers," says Henry Harteveldt, airline analyst at Atmosphere Research Group. "That press release includes an estimate that airfares will have to increase if carriers are required to leave middle seats open. If demand remains low, and airlines have to compete for a limited number of travelers, airfares will likely use low fares to attract as many travelers as they're able."

What's crucial to restoring that demand, says Harteveldt, is first restoring a sense of safety.

"Fear and trust will be the two emotions at the forefront of people's minds when planning a trip, and if a person doesn't feel an airline adequately respects their health, they will find an airline that does."

Oil prices are dropping, so will airfares go lower?

Blended and refined, crude oil becomes the jet fuel needed to literally power aviation. Airlines levy fuel surcharges to help pay for it, which are included in the final ticket price as a "YQ" fee, which accounts for variations in fuel cost. At the end of April, prices for barrels of crude oil dropped off a cliff.

For a standard British Airways economy round-trip ticket between London and Johannesburg for a trip in August 2020, the YQ fuel surcharge is £189, 30% of the total £610 airfare (that's a $229 surcharge making up a $737 fare). Would British Airways seek to pass potential savings on jet fuel prices to passengers, by removing or lessening fuel surcharges? If only it was so simple.

"Jet fuel typically accounts for 20-25% of an airline's operating expenses," Manoel Suhet tells CNN Travel. Suhet, CEO at Business Traveler Deals and a former airline executive with a background in international oil distribution, weighs that if crude oil and jet fuel prices continue to decline, air carriers may benefit from this lower price environment, but it will hardly be immediate.

"Many airlines use fuel hedging to minimize the risk of fuel price volatility by agreeing to purchase a certain amount of oil in the future at a set price," says Suhet. "And the airlines are adapting these strategies to the current climate, to improve cash-flow position by streamlining costs."

In other words, even though oil is cheap, jet fuel still needs to be refined from it, a process that adds to the price, and laying out cash right now to buy future fuel isn't exactly at the top of an airline's to-do list.

Destinations need tourism, so will there be airfare deals?

Uncertainty breeds hesitation and, for some, even shockingly low airfares may not be enough to inspire bookings until the health and economic situations of destinations stabilize.

Kathy Kass, a New York City lawyer and fitness blogger, typically travels internationally every month and likes to monitor airfare deals. In March, she began canceling planned trips and holding off on planning others: "I was rebooking for late June into early July, thinking things have to be okay by then, but now I'm sitting with vouchers for a few airlines and I don't really want to collect more."

She has been tempted, however. On April 29, travel blogs kicked up a frenzy over an $840 round-trip business class deal from Canada or Mexico to Bali, Indonesia, a ticket that typically prices more than four times that amount.

Kass decided not to book. "I've always wanted to visit Bali, but I just don't know what the situation will be," she tells CNN Travel. "I don't want to put myself in harm's way. I also don't know what's going on in Indonesia, and don't know when Bali will again be ready for guests."

Such sentiments will prove major obstacles to tourism revival, and the Italian island of Sicily has already announced their plan to overcome this hesitation and grease a return for holidaymakers.

The Times of London reports that Sicily's regional government has set aside €50 million for paying half of airfares and one of every three hotel nights for visitors, while also including free entry to museums and archaeological sites. The caveat? Travelers willing to take advantage must holiday in Sicily this year, following the opening of Italy's borders to foreign tourists, and that date hasn't yet been set.

Asiana Airlines is taking a similarly forgiving stance, promoting ticket sales with the promise of "buy now, fly any date." Book a flight from the United States to South Korea on Asiana and the airline will waive change fees not only once, a conciliation that has become standard among airlines during COVID, but up to three times.

Airlines are adjusting for demand, so will airfares stay the same?

In the heart of Australia's red center, at an airport more accustomed to welcoming tour groups bound for Uluru, the tarmac has transformed into a museum to modern Singaporean commercial aviation.

More than $5 billion worth of aircraft are parked at Alice Springs Airport, from Singapore A380s and 777s, to Scoot 787s and SilkAir 737s. It's hopefully not "goodbye," but "see you later" for these planes, as the arid environment of the Outback helps keep them ready to resume service. But, for many other aircraft, the Covid-19 crisis will see them go gently into a good night.

Virgin Atlantic has sped up the retirement of their 747 and A340-600 fleets, while also closing a base at London-Gatwick. KLM is saying goodbye to its iconic 747s sooner than planned, and American Airlines had a busy April retiring its 757, 767, E190 and A330-300 fleets (though some AA 767s are still flying as makeshift cargo planes).

And, as planes leave the skies, so do flight and cabin crew. In a May note to the pilots of United Airlines, as obtained by Simple Flying, Bryan Quigley, senior vice president of flight operations at United, shares the sobering fact that United pilots currently outnumber passengers: "On average we are only carrying about 10,000 passengers per day...we currently have more pilots than passengers on any given day."

The note went on to state that United would be "displacing" 4,457 out of 12,250 pilots as of June 30.

This is hardly the leading edge of aviation sector jobs cuts; some airlines have been slicing staff for weeks, with Ryanair planning to lay off 3,000, British Airways furloughing more than 30,000, and Lufthansa Group placing 80,000 workers on reduced hours, all by the start of May.

In no uncertain terms, airlines are adjusting for demand. This agility is key to allowing them to continue offering airfares as affordable or as "normal" as the public were accustomed to paying prior to the Covid-19 crisis.

"All major airlines are expecting their companies to have a smaller size once they resume operations," says Pablo Chiozza, CEO at World Travel Solutions and former senior vice president at LATAM Airlines. "This means that their capacity will be adjusted to the demand, and at run rate they are not expecting many empty seats."

So, how expensive will air travel be?

After the Covid-19 crisis ends and Nadia Bouzid goes to book a one-way economy flight back to Cancun to finish her mural, the price of the ticket may be $70, but it could also be $200 or $350.

Airfares will continue to respond to supply and demand, but the possibility of tourism promotions or the need to purchase social distance on planes are emerging -- provisionally, at least -- as forces destined to push prices a little lower, or a little higher.

Opinions on what are or are not good deals on tickets and the decision to purchase will, as before, still be up to you, the traveler.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 46387

Reported Deaths: 2662
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion11434680
Lake4985241
Elkhart313343
Allen2695117
St. Joseph185766
Cass16369
Hamilton1502100
Hendricks1371100
Johnson1244118
Porter69037
Tippecanoe6598
Madison64363
Clark62744
Bartholomew58044
Howard55057
LaPorte54125
Kosciusko5003
LaGrange4646
Jackson4583
Vanderburgh4576
Noble45128
Delaware42949
Boone42743
Hancock42535
Marshall4183
Shelby41825
Floyd37044
Morgan32331
Montgomery29020
Grant28726
Clinton2812
Monroe26328
Dubois2616
White25910
Decatur24732
Henry23615
Lawrence23624
Vigo2278
Harrison20822
Warrick20729
Dearborn20622
Greene18432
Miami1802
Jennings16911
Putnam1658
DeKalb1594
Scott1557
Daviess13916
Orange13323
Wayne1296
Franklin1248
Steuben1242
Perry1239
Ripley1148
Jasper1132
Carroll1092
Wabash1092
Fayette967
Newton9610
Whitley814
Randolph774
Starke773
Huntington702
Wells681
Jay670
Fulton661
Jefferson661
Washington651
Knox630
Pulaski621
Clay594
Rush563
Benton480
Adams471
Gibson462
Owen451
Sullivan441
Brown381
Blackford372
Posey360
Spencer331
Tipton301
Crawford290
Fountain292
Switzerland260
Martin220
Parke220
Ohio140
Warren141
Union130
Vermillion130
Pike80
Unassigned0193

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 52865

Reported Deaths: 2876
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Franklin9338407
Cuyahoga7013366
Hamilton5224198
Marion273138
Lucas2628302
Pickaway217641
Summit1969206
Montgomery178426
Mahoning1752228
Butler144844
Columbiana120960
Stark1052112
Lorain96267
Trumbull86362
Warren75721
Clark7399
Belmont53421
Delaware51815
Tuscarawas51510
Fairfield50316
Medina49132
Lake44316
Miami44231
Ashtabula42144
Portage41858
Licking41611
Geauga39042
Wood38451
Clermont3566
Wayne35452
Richland3185
Allen29740
Mercer2728
Darke23625
Erie22922
Greene2229
Holmes2043
Madison1888
Huron1772
Crawford1357
Ottawa13023
Washington12720
Sandusky12213
Morrow1151
Putnam11516
Hardin11312
Ross1092
Auglaize993
Monroe8617
Coshocton811
Jefferson802
Union801
Hancock761
Hocking767
Muskingum731
Preble661
Lawrence650
Williams652
Clinton620
Guernsey603
Shelby594
Logan581
Wyandot584
Fulton570
Ashland551
Brown531
Carroll513
Defiance483
Fayette460
Highland431
Knox391
Champaign381
Athens371
Scioto360
Seneca332
Perry301
Henry290
Van Wert270
Paulding230
Vinton222
Adams211
Pike200
Jackson170
Gallia141
Harrison121
Meigs110
Noble110
Morgan90
Unassigned00
Fort Wayne
Scattered Clouds
90° wxIcon
Hi: 92° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 91°
Angola
Clear
86° wxIcon
Hi: 90° Lo: 68°
Feels Like: 88°
Huntington
Broken Clouds
91° wxIcon
Hi: 90° Lo: 68°
Feels Like: 92°
Decatur
Scattered Clouds
90° wxIcon
Hi: 93° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 90°
Van Wert
Scattered Clouds
90° wxIcon
Hi: 95° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 90°
Heatwave Continues
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events