Spring is the season of rebirth, and the US airline market is showing signs that a return to normalcy is on the way. This week, spring break has helped push traffic upward and earlier this week the third-largest traffic day in the last two years was recorded, a positive sign that the leisure market has returned. The following chart shows traffic through March 15th, with the red 2022 pattern edging closer to the pre-pandemic level shown in blue. The gaps between the red and blue segments shown earlier in January and February have disappeared as the trend continues to slowly merge with pre-pandemic levels.
Traffic for the last week has averaged more than nearly 2 million daily passengers, and Tuesdays, typically the lowest traffic day of the week, have risen significantly in recent weeks, illustrating that the recovery is gaining overall, and not only on peak travel days.
Of course, we have not yet reached parity with traffic levels from 2019 as yet, as international travel remains closed in many parts of Asia. The re-opening of travel to the UK set for later this week, without restrictions for vaccinations or pre-flight testing, will be the first test of a return to normalcy. The success of the elimination of restrictions in the UK will provide vital information and potentially influence further decisions if it is as successful as we all hope. Spring is in the air from a regulatory standpoint in several countries.
Our AirInsight US Airline Performance Index has also shown an upward trend in early 2022, with an inflection point in February moving upward after a brief downward trend in January attributable to the Omicron variant.
For those who prefer to visualize numbers, the following table summarizes our index data over the last three weeks. It is notable that Spring break traffic has buoyed this week’s results as the industry is showing stronger performance than it has in quite some time. It is notable that all 7 days in the last week have shown positive performance, up from 4 days and 5 days of the 7 days in prior weeks. The question now is how long the strong trends will continue and how quickly business traffic will return.
We are also hearing positive inputs from airlines. Both American and Delta this week had their single highest booking days in their history, so travel demand has clearly returned. American noted that business travel is beginning to return, with March at 59% and April bookings at 66% recovered. The signs of Spring growth are emerging very strongly.
The Bottom Line
While traffic has not fully returned to pre-pandemic levels, the industry is beginning to edge closer, largely on the strength of pent-up leisure demand. The high bookings for summer indicate that airlines may soon need to expand their schedules again, a welcome sight after the pandemic.
With the UK now opening its operations to normalcy later this week, without vaccination or testing requirements, we should begin to see an uptick in international traffic. New Zealand will open for international flights in May. Spring is a new beginning, and traffic trends now appear to be moving in a positive direction as the pandemic seems to be running its course.
The question now is not whether the new growth will bloom as we approach summer, but how many buds will turn into flowers. The data are looking more optimistic each week as we progress through 2020.