Summer vacationers whose trips abroad were waylaid by the coronavirus may find that travel still isn’t back to normal even if they wait a year.
American Airlines gave one of the first hints Wednesday as it announced that the number of long-haulflight seats it is offering for summer 2021 to international destinations will be down 25% from a more normal summer – the one a year ago.
Though the total number of available seats would be a vast improvement compared with this summer – it offers 60% fewer than a year ago – American’s plans still represent a substantial cut.
“COVID-19 has forced us to reevaluate our network,” Vasu Raja, American’s chief revenue officer, said in a statement. “American will have a significantly smaller international network in the year ahead, but we are using this opportunity to hit reset and create a network using the strength of our strategic hubs.”
American said it will cut three trans-Atlantic routes from Charlotte, North Carolina, and Philadelphia, as well as five “underperforming” routes from Los Angeles to Asia and South America. The list of routes being discontinued involves many aimed primarily at vacationers, such as Charlotte to Barcelona, Spain; or Philadelphia to Casablanca, Morocco.
In making the changes, American said it is positioning Dallas-Fort Worth as its primary hub for flights to Asia and Philadelphia as its gateway to Europe. It will continue to use Miami as its major airport for the Caribbean and Central and South America.
It’s yet to be seen how American’s major competitors will react when it comes to their own international scheduling, but one thing is certain: The whole plan could be thrown out of whack by the course of the pandemic.
“We are always evaluating our network based on supply and demand. As government restrictions change, we will adjust accordingly,” American Airlines spokeswoman Andrea Koos said.
Travel experts said the coronavirus makes planning for next summer tricky. If a vaccine comes along with a mass inoculation program, travelers may muster the courage to book vacations or business trips abroad once again. If treatments are delayed, travel could remain in the same abyss.
“Without the certainty of if and when a vaccine gets released, everything is just guesswork,” said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst with Atmosphere Research.
It’s not just a matter of fear of flying while the virus rages but also whether the U.S. or foreign governments will permit travel. European Union nations bar Americans from the continent because of the surge in U.S. cases, primarily in the South and West.
“If we are lucky to get a vaccine available between January and March and enough people can start getting vaccinated, there is a good chance then that Americans will be able to travel to wherever they would like next summer for vacation,” Harteveldt said.
The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci, told a House committee last week that a vaccine could be ready at the end of the year or early next year. Other experts contacted by USA TODAY predicted it might take longer, closer to the middle of 2021, which would roil the next summer vacation season.
Even if they don’t restore full international flight schedules next year, airlines want to lure flyers back, especially those who have been grounded for months. The surefire way to do that is discounting, said Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, an online service that specializes in ferreting out travel bargains. The skies will “be awash with cheap flights,” he predicted.
Once a vaccine is on the way, some travelers may book international trips even before they can get inoculations, he said. Airlines could quickly put idled jetliners back in service.
“For a lot of people, just the knowledge it is coming is enough for it to be a boom in new bookings,” Keyes said.