Since the pandemic slowdown – or for some airlines, full stop – air travel has been picking up rapidly. While the West lifted most restrictions before the end of last year, the real turning point came in February 2023, when China removed almost all COVID controls for travel. Japan is set to remove the last of its border controls related to the pandemic on May 8th, signaling that Asia is unlocked and ready to get back to business as usual.
In response to the gradual global relaxation, airlines have been restarting abandoned routes, launching new services and adding capacity back into international markets with bullish enthusiasm. Planes are flying with healthy load factors and passenger confidence is high. Does that mean we can stop talking about the ‘recovery’ now?
Photo: Ryken Martin | Shutterstock
The numbers look good
Simple Flying caught up with Steve Solomon, Chief Commercial Officer of ARC, to investigate just how ‘recovered’ the industry is. ARC, the Airlines Reporting Corporation, works with travel agencies, airlines and other stakeholders to support the growth of air travel. Part of what the firm does is provide settlement and reconciliation of US agency ticketing, giving ARC a unique insight into where people are booking to fly, and when.
With access to data on around 490 airlines serving countries all over the world, ARC’s vantage point gives it a comprehensive view of what’s going on in aviation. Steve feels pretty optimistic about where we are now, as he noted,
“The magic number for us is $8 billion. Last year in May 2022, sales exceeded $8 billion, which was the first time that happened since January and February of 2020. For this year, both January and February were $8.4 billion in sales, so exceeding that 8 billion number. That is really signaling a strong recovery.”
Steve further noted an increased booking window – the time before travel that the tickets are booked. A report by Trip.com highlighted that, in summer 2021, average booking windows decreased to below 15 days for flights, compared to pre-pandemic averages of 45-46 days. Steve said that we’ve already returned to that booking window for US point-of-sale flights. Globally, the booking window used to be around 57 days; the industry is rapidly approaching that benchmark too.
Steve said that this is indicative of a newfound consumer confidence in air travel, but also a reflection of the more relaxed policies at US-based airlines,
“Consumer confidence is high, but in the US, a lot of airlines have instituted more flexible policies as it relates to changing tickets. What we’re seeing is that people are more willing to take a chance to book their travel. And if things change, they know that there’s flexibility, and they can apply those funds towards a future booking.”
Have we recovered?
While the numbers look good, and leisure travel is doing very well indeed, there are still some areas where growth is expected. Corporate travel is sitting at around 80% of the 2019 levels, so there’s still some way to go. For airlines, corporate flyers are their bread and butter, so welcoming them back, particularly to the premium cabins, is a high priority.
Nevertheless, Steve remains positive about the overall outlook for aviation. He noted,
“The airlines are really bullish; we’re seeing record jet orders, both from US and international carriers. So the outlook for the industry is really, really healthy. I think a lot of airlines are making investments today that are going to help them serve customers and kind of the growth that’s expected and travel in the coming years. So that’s really exciting.
“Conferences are packed, and everyone is realizing the value that people get out of being there in person. And then, on the personal side, the pause that a lot of people took in traveling, whether domestically or internationally, has really impacted their well-being. I think people realize that traveling is great, and they want to do it. And so we’re really, really bullish on the future of this industry.”
Photo: Phillip Pilosian | Shutterstock
So has aviation recovered? Can we stop talking about it now? Steve summed things up perfectly when he said,
“I think the answer is it depends on who you are and from what perspective you’re assessing things.”
You can watch the complete interview with Steve in the video below. Don’t miss our next webinar with Rob Dewar, SVP at Airbus Canada and the ‘father of the A220.’