One of the least-reported side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine is the nearly full-on donnybrook it is creating in the sky.
As more Americans become fully vaccinated against the virus, an explosion in leisure and VFR (visiting friends and relatives) air travel is expected this summer.
With business travelers maintaining no-show status, airlines have been scrambling to add routes to their schedules in an effort to get as many paying customers into seats as possible.
“You can call it the spaghetti theory,” said Robert Mann, who is principal at R.W. Mann & Co., an airline industry consulting firm in New York. “They are throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks.
“Everybody’s fighting over the same leisure customers, even the carriers with very, very high costs like the network carriers,” Mann added.
Travelers flying from Milwaukee will see this play out soon. By late summer there will be four airlines offering nonstop service between Milwaukee and Las Vegas. Right now, there are two.
You can also go nonstop, at least seasonally, from Milwaukee to Portland, Maine, and Charleston, South Carolina. Whether that service sticks is anybody’s guess.
“I think the current experimentation on new routes will like any experiment have some successes and some failures,” John Grant, a U.K.-based senior analyst at OAG, a global travel data analysis firm, said via email.
“Covid-19 may have caused immeasurable damage (to the airline industry), but in a bizarre way it has made airlines think long and hard about how they structure their networks and how best to serve their customers,” Grant said.
No sand between your toes on video calls
That re-thinking has led to new routes and sometimes competing routes to places where video conference calls are no substitute for actually being there.
“You can’t Zoom a trip to Cancun or Vegas,” said Barry Bateman, retired airport director at Mitchell who now runs an airport consulting business in Kentucky.
“What we’re seeing is the airlines are anticipating that leisure markets are going to come back first,” Bateman added. “The story is people want to go get their vacation fix and they are doing that in a big way.
“Airlines are reacting.”
Grant said more than 50 new domestic airport pairs have been added for service in July compared to 2019 “which is quite remarkable in the context of the wider global market.”
Consider Florida. So far this year, Milwaukee has picked up a number of new nonstop flights to the Sunshine State, but some of those new flights only go once a week and are only offered during certain times of the year.
That’s another example of how the industry has changed: leisure travelers don’t need the frequent flights that business travelers do.
Pick an airport in Florida — Destin/Fort Walton Beach; Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood; Fort Myers; Miami; Orlando; Pensacola; Sarasota/Bradenton; and Tampa — and there is a nonstop flight from Milwaukee.
Also this year, Spirit and JetBlue have announced plans to enter the Milwaukee market. Spirit will launch its Milwaukee service later this year. JetBlue says it will launch Milwaukee service in 2022.
Meanwhile, Southwest, United and American have all either added or expanded their service in Milwaukee.
It’s happening at airports across the U.S.
“What you see is a whole series of non-traditional opportunities,” Mann said. “If they work, they’ll stick around. If they work really well, they might get expanded. If they don’t work, they’ll go on to some other thing that they think will work.”
Airlines are all preparing “to flex up dramatically in June when school is out and the traditional vacation period starts,” Mann added.
This hasn’t happened since 1978
The situation, in some ways, reflects what happened when the airline industry in the U.S. was deregulated in 1978, Bateman said.
“The airlines went out and just started flying routes that had been dormant for decades,” Bateman said.
The difference now is there is less risk involved. If a route doesn’t work, an airline will move the planes somewhere else.
“The days of staying in a market trying to make it work are gone,” Bateman said. “If it doesn’t respond in a reasonable period of time, they will take those assets and put them on a route they think will work.”
None of this is lost on the folks who run airports. Except for some of the world’s busiest, most airports will take all the service they can get.
“The thing about airports is whether you have 200 flights a day or 20 flights a day, you have to be at the same level of compliance with the rules and regulations,” Bateman said. “It’s not a big switch for airports to have more activity. You’re doing it anyway. It’s just a matter of volume.”
“You’re not going to turn anybody down,” Bateman added.
For airlines, it’s a bit more complicated.
“Airlines, now you’re talking about airplanes and flight crews and all the support systems for that, it’s a bigger switch,” Bateman said. “They all want to start producing revenue again. So, they’re flipping those switches as fast as they can.”
Flights are cheap
All that shifting around, the competition that has and will result on some routes and airlines’ desire to at least get some revenue coming in has sent airfares dropping.
“Right now, airfares are low,” Bateman said. “There are some wonderful introductory fares out there.”
The deals are there for the taking.
“Everybody has the opportunity to buy what they want to buy” in terms of flights, service level and airline, Mann said.
Business travel and long-haul international flying remain deeply depressed, down around 80% from 2019.
Business fares are usually more expensive than leisure fares. Business travelers pay a premium for being able to get somewhere quickly on very short notice.
Airlines are trying to make up for that lost business travel revenue and are ready to handle whatever demand arises, even if it comes only from leisure travelers.
“2020 would have been a record year based on January and February,” Mann said. “Then, for all practical purposes, it went to zero. That’s about as deep and protracted a drop as anyone has ever seen.”
“The key thing here is they have a lot of available capacity should they decide to use it,” he added. “There are a lot of resources that could be brought to bear if demand increases rapidly.”
Some airlines have raised or have talked about raising fares to make up for the loss of business travelers.
About 1.4 million people passed through U.S. airport checkpoints each day in April, double the number of air travelers in January. Still, the April figure remains about 40% below the pace of April 2019.
Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines, says low fares will stick around.
“The industry has more seats than it does passengers,” Kelly said. “What we will be prepared for is a very low-fare environment for a long time.”
New service in Milwaukee
Here’s a look at some of the new service announced for Mitchell International:
Sun Country Airlines
Sun Country Airlines bills itself as “a new breed of hybrid low-cost air carrier.”
Sun Country Airlines said April 27 that it is adding new, nonstop service from Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport to five destinations beginning Aug. 26.
The cities where Sun Country is adding service from Milwaukee include Minneapolis, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Fort Myers, Florida and Cancun, Mexico.
JetBlue calls itself “New York’s Hometown Airline.” As of Dec. 31, 2020, JetBlue served 98 destinations in the United States, the Caribbean and Latin America.
JetBlue said April 21 that it will begin service during the second quarter of 2022 at Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport, airline and airport officials said Wednesday.
The New York-based airline will offer nonstop flights to two key markets from Milwaukee: Boston Logan International Airport and New York — John F. Kennedy International Airport.
The airline seeks to win on service.
“Typically, our customers are neither high-traffic business travelers nor ultra-price sensitive travelers,” ,” according to a securities filing.
“…A key element of our success is the belief that competitive fares and quality air travel need not be mutually exclusive.”
The ultra-low fare carrier said in February that it would begin service at Mitchell this year. The airline begins service in Milwaukee in June.
Spirit will offer daily nonstop flights to Orlando, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
The airline will offer Milwaukee’s only nonstop service to Los Angeles International Airport.
Southwest Airlines Co., the market share leader at Mitchell, has expanded aggressively since the pandemic began, having opened or announced service at 17 new airports.
In Milwaukee, it is adding seasonal service between Milwaukee and Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport and between Milwaukee and Sarasota/Bradenton.
Southwest carries about 50% of the passengers at Milwaukee Mitchell.
United said in late March that it was expanding its Milwaukee service to leisure destinations.
Beginning May 28 and continuing through Labor Day weekend, United has said that it will fly nonstop from Milwaukee to Charleston, South Carolina; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Pensacola, Florida; Portland, Maine, and Savannah, Georgia.
All five destinations have never had nonstop service from Wisconsin, according to a statement from the airport.
American said in April that it planned to resume seasonal service between Milwaukee and Miami.
The flights will be offered every Saturday from June 5 to Aug. 14, 2021, and Nov. 13 to March 22, 2022.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.