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Banking On Busy Summer Travel Season, Airlines Add More Flights And New Routes

A line loops through security at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport as travelers return to the skies after mostly staying home during the coronavirus pandemic.
David Schaper
A line loops through security at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport as travelers return to the skies after mostly staying home during the coronavirus pandemic.

Looking for a nonstop flight between Appleton, Wis., and Savannah, Ga.? It'll soon be available. Or how about Austin, Texas, to Nashville, Tenn.? Louisville, Ky., to Los Angeles? Or from just about anywhere to Bozeman, Mont.?

Those are some of the new, unconventional domestic routes that airlines are now offering as they try to capitalize on the huge pent-up demand for leisure travel and inch back toward profitability while waiting for business travel to bounce back.

For the bigger airlines, especially American, Delta and United, earning the loyalty of business travelers was like capturing the holy grail, as these road warriors who'd fly tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of miles a year often booked at the last minute and would pay higher fares. But with many business conferences and meetings taking place over Zoom and many corporate travel restrictions still in place, very few of them have returned to flying.

Instead, those who are flying now are more likely to be like Gabe Holmes, who seems almost giddy to be traveling again, while checking in with his family at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

"Yeah, heading to Florida! We're very excited! Absolutely! Looking forward to it," Holmes said.

The 43-year-old from Grand Rapids, Mich., said life during the coronavirus pandemic has been a real struggle, but now that he's vaccinated, "I've been itching to get out," he said. "I've been cooped up, work, home, so, yeah, I'm definitely looking forward to it."

As more Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19, leisure travel is starting to take off. The Transportation Security Administration says it screened more than 1.6 million people at airport security checkpoints on May 2. That's the highest number of air travelers since early March of last year, when the pandemic began. Only 170,000 people went through TSA checkpoints nationwide on the first Sunday in May 2020.

Shyla Harris of Hammond, Ind., is another traveler who could hardly contain her glee to be flying again for the first time in a long time.

"I'm going to Las Vegas. This is my first time," the 21-year-old said before going through security at O'Hare.

"I'm ready! Gonna get drunk! Gonna get tattooed! I'm just ready," she said, before adding, "I don't even know what I'm gonna get tatted yet, but I'm gonna get something!"

Humberto Rodriguez of Chicago is also eager to fly again.

"I'm headed to Orlando. I'm going to take my kids to Disney, stuff like that, and do some sightseeing, you know," he said, with his wife, a 4-year-old and a baby in tow.

Rodriguez said he hasn't traveled in over a year, "so it's time to take a vacation. Due to COVID, you know, we couldn't really do nothing during the year, so it'll be a good chance to go now and enjoy ourselves."

So airlines are rushing to add more flights to vacation destinations to accommodate the surge. And they're not just resuming service to the same cities they flew to before the pandemic.

"The book has been rewritten since COVID," says Will Livsey, a data analyst with the aviation analytics company Cirium, which tracks airline flight schedules and routes, among other data.

"We have history on how things were done for many, many years, but now you throw in a pandemic and you're literally rewriting the book now," Livsey says. "Airlines are trying new things, new experiments, if you will, of putting planes where they think they'll make the most amount of money."

Here are some examples of how airlines are seeking to capitalize on the surge in leisure travel and travelers' new market demands:

  • Allegiant Air is starting nonstop service from Des Moines, Iowa, to Houston, San Diego and Portland, Ore.
  • JetBlue will start flying from Boston to Kansas City, Milwaukee and Asheville, N.C., and it has formed a new partnership with American Airlines, which is also adding flights to destinations in the Northeast.
  • Spirit Airlines is going into new airports too, starting service from both Milwaukee and Louisville to Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Orlando, Fla.
  • And Livsey says all the airlines are beefing up service to airports near national parks, especially out West.

    "The Montanas, the Dakotas of the world," Livsey says, adding, "Who would've seen that coming?"

    "The airlines have been really nimble, and we've seen them respond pretty quickly to the types of routes and the types of trips that travelers are demanding," says Melanie Lieberman, senior travel editor at The Points Guy travel and lifestyle website, which recently published a survey showing that half of U.S. adults are planning to take at least one vacation this summer and that many travelers will prefer to visit more wide open spaces.

    "So with the decrease in business travel and even the lag in people returning to cities, we've seen the airlines double down on these gateways to national and state parks, destinations that offer a lot more outdoor recreation," she says. "I think that's a real indication of what people want right now and the airlines moving to respond to that very quickly."

    After losing billions of dollars last year, the airlines are hoping their moves into smaller, secondary markets and serving national parks will help them claw their way back to profitability while they wait for the more lucrative business and international travelers to return.

    United Airlines, for example, will add nearly 500 daily domestic flights this summer, including new routes to vacation destinations such as Yellowstone National Park and Kona, Hawaii. American, Delta and Southwest are adding more flights and are creating new routes this summer too, as are JetBlue, Alaska, Hawaiian and discount carriers such as Allegiant, Frontier, Spirit and Sun Country.

    "I think everybody is very bullish on domestic opportunities," said Cirium's Livsey. "The airlines are way more eager to be risk tolerant for trying new routes like this than they would pre-pandemic. We're definitely seeing a lot of change."

    But it will take time for people to return to travel in the way that they used to before the pandemic, according to Lieberman, of The Points Guy.

    "I think we're going to see that preference for wide open spaces really stick around," Lieberman said. "And airlines are responding to that by flying more often, more frequently, adding gateways to national parks. That strategy makes a lot of sense."

    For those who haven't flown in quite a while, a few words of caution.

    Those rock-bottom fares that airlines were offering last year when no one was flying are starting to disappear as flights to domestic destinations fill up fast.

    "You can definitely find deals, but you have to be incredibly patient and you have to be very flexible. There's so much demand for a lot of the same types of trips," says Lieberman, who says travelers might have more luck finding bargains in trips to cities such as Chicago, New Orleans, St. Louis, Philadelphia or Memphis, Tenn., than to Acadia, Glacier, Yellowstone or Zion national parks.

    Planes are mostly full now, and Delta, the last airline to block out middle seats, no longer does so.

    The Federal Aviation Administration is warning of an increase in disruptive passenger behavior, often involving people refusing to wear masks. The agency says there will be no tolerance of such unruly behavior and announced Wednesday that it is proposing fines of $9,000 to $32,750 against four passengers for recent incidents. The TSA announced last week that masks will continue to be mandatory on commercial airline flights and in airports until at least Sept. 13.

    Rental cars are in short supply in many markets across the U.S. and are expected to be quite expensive this summer as a result.

    The pandemic has also created a shortage of workers in many resort towns and vacation destinations this summer, and a lack of staff could lead to longer waits at restaurants and some limitations in services.

    Regardless, with many Americans not taking vacations at all over the last year or staying relatively close to home, it's expected to be a fairly busy summer as many U.S. vacation destinations.

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    David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.