Routes Reconnected: North American airlines see ‘pent-up demand’ for air travel

COVID-19 testing will be critical to building back consumer confidence, airlines and airports say.

Airlines and airports in North America see pent-up demand for air travel, but building passenger confidence in the safety of flying amid the COVID-19 crisis will be critical to bringing traffic levels back to pre-pandemic levels.  

“This is clearly a new world for everyone where schedules and demand are changing constantly,” JetBlue Airways VP-network planning Andrea Lusso told the virtual Routes Reconnected 2020 conference. “It really has to do with customer confidence. There is pent-up demand out there.” 

San Antonio International Airport (SAT) director Jesus Saenz, also speaking at the conference, added: “A lot of North American airports, including us, are looking at [COVID-19] testing opportunities that are becoming available for airports and passengers. We need to rebuild consumer confidence, whether through testing opportunities or new vaccinations becoming available.” 

With vaccines still months away from being widely available, testing will be key in the nearer term, JetBlue’s Lusso said. “For a leisure carrier like us, we think demand is ready to go,” he said. “Testing will be critical for an airplane with 150 passengers aboard. There continues to be lot of confusion out there. Some places, you have to get a test [before traveling there] and for some places, you have to quarantine. We’re hoping for a uniform approach to testing.” 

Lusso noted that JetBlue stood up a program earlier this year to combat COVID-19, including sanitizing aircraft and communicating the right COVID-19 protocols to passengers. “There is pent up leisure demand. Folks want to travel,” he said. “It will take a little bit of time. We’re hopeful that by next summer we’ll be back to pre-COVID levels of traffic.” 

Bert van der Stege, head of commercial and finance at ULCC Swoop, a Canadian carrier affiliated with WestJet, said the Canadia industry is bracing for “a few more really difficult months” ahead. “We hope to be back to pre-COVID [traffic] levels in the 2021 third quarter,” he said, noting that Canada “is effectively closed to international travel” and passengers are required to “self-isolate for 14 days, even for a domestic trip.” 

These strict quarantine rules are heavily impacting air travel demand. “We need to introduce arrival testing to try and reduce the 14-day rule,” van der Stege said. “We believe pre-departure testing will also build confidence. We’re hopeful of implementing [COVID-19] testing at Edmonton (YEG) and Toronto (YYZ) airports.” 

Lusso said JetBlue has “been very active” adding routes despite the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’ve announced over 60 more routes this year alone,” he explained. “We’ve been quite creative using some of those assets [aircraft] to expand the breadth of the network.” While frequencies have been lowered on most routes, adding new routes is “better than keeping an aircraft parked” from a cost standpoint, Lusso said, adding: “If things go well, we’re going to have a good problem on our hands, which means having more opportunities than we have planes to fly.” 

Photo credit: IATA