Jimmy Sweeney will take his first flight since the COVID-19 pandemic to visit family in Florida around the Thanksgiving holiday — and he has reasons to be cautious.
He'll be taking his wife and their 4-month-old baby. And while he's not worried about getting on a plane, he is worried about being in tight spaces with a large group of family members once he arrives.
"It looks like it will be too big of a crowd for Thanksgiving, so we'll visit family when we get there and then do our own thing for a week and then see family again later," said Sweeney, who owns the Grand Berry Theater, an independent movie theater in Fort Worth.
As millions of Americans make plans to travel for the holidays, the COVID-19 pandemic is upending one of the busiest flying periods of the year. Surveys show most people aren't willing to fly yet and health and government authorities are warning that large family gatherings may be breeding grounds for the spread of the coronavirus.
To combat that, airlines are going to great lengths to convince customers — and governments — that air travel is safe. They've adopted pre-flight COVID-19 testing to screen out potentially infected travelers before they board flights and they've rolled out studies about the low risk of catching the virus on a plane. Those efforts may open restricted areas to travelers, but as winter approaches, there isn't any sign the pandemic is going away.
In a year where the pandemic has changed the way we work and go to school, it's also set to change the way Americans eat turkey and exchange gifts in the presence of family and friends.
It will be the first major test for airlines since the dismal summer travel season ended. Early indications are that the November-December holiday travel season won't be strong either. The major airlines have cut more than 40% of flights from their previous schedules in anticipation of tepid demand.
Southwest Airlines and American have even reduced their flight schedules on the busiest days of the Thanksgiving travel week by about a third compared with a year ago.
Still, CEOs at Delta Air Lines and United Airlines said they have recently seen an uptick in bookings for the peak holiday weeks and are adding flights to match demand.
As leisure travelers slowly return, business travel isn't expected to bounce back for years. New Bank of America research shows that business trips — 400 million in 2019 — contributed $334 billion to the travel industry's $1.1 trillion in revenue last year. Its researchers don't see that spending coming back until late 2023 or 2024.