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Consumer Demand for Flying Grows But Business Travel Lags

Survey finds air travel is up, but rising COVID-19 cases and vaccination questions are major headwinds

Consumer demand for air travel continues to strengthen, with 70 percent of consumers saying they have already booked flights for the future, according to a recent survey by OAG. As a result, US domestic capacity from June through August this year rose 81 percent over the same period in 2020.

Nevertheless, the survey of 1,800-plus US travelers taken in July and August found concerns over the spread of the delta variant and the resulting rise COVID transmission rates, coupled with squabbles over vaccination requirements and conflicting government health directives are damping down consumer confidence.

The survey found that among the nearly one-third of respondents who haven’t booked flights yet, 40 percent are waiting for vaccination rates and regulations to improve and 30 percent are waiting for vaccine passports to be required.

The survey found nearly two-thirds of business travelers (62 percent) said their companies are planning air travel in the next 12 months. However less than half (41 percent) said they expect their company to return to pre-pandemic travel rates in the next 12 months.

Over the next year 15 percent expect to travel about three-quarters as much as they did before the pandemic, and another 16 percent said they expect their companies to clock about half the travel they did before the pandemic. For 20 percent of survey respondents, travel will be cut to about a quarter of their pre-pandemic levels, or limited to only critical travel. Less than one in 10 (9 percent) said they don’t plan to travel at all.

Of the business travelers who have not yet returned to the skies, 11 percent expect their first trip to take place in the fourth quarter of 2021, while nearly 5 percent expect to wait until 2022.

According to a recent poll from the Global Business Travel Association, despite the uncertainty surrounding the recent rise in the COVID-19 delta variant, business travel still appears to be on track for a comeback in the months ahead. The survey found companies are more open to non-essential domestic business travel, with 60 percent reporting it is “sometimes” or “usually” allowed, up from 48 percent in July.

The question of whether the federal government might mandate vaccinations for domestic air travelers has garnered some attention lately, since President Biden’s chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci came out in favor of a vaccine mandate for travel. During a podcast interview last week, Fauci said: “I would support that if you want to get on a plane and travel with other people that you should be vaccinated.”

The OAG survey found travelers to be divided on the vaccine issue. Most consumers surveyed reported being fully vaccinated. However, only 15 percent of non-vaccinated individuals said they plan to get vaccinated before their next trip.

Over two-thirds (68 percent) of all survey respondents said they are interested in or want domestic vaccine passports, and 70 percent believe vaccine passports should be required for international travel.

However of those that said they were not yet vaccinated, 56 percent said they still wouldn’t get vaccinated even if the airline, airport or destination required it to travel.

“Vaccine mandates are a polarizing issue,” said John Grant, senior analyst at OAG. “Many airlines, governments and destinations are actively considering mandating vaccines to fly or enter, and the majority of travelers support the use of vaccine passports. While this may add fuel to hot fire, the ongoing strength and resilience of the entire travel market is directly linked to higher vaccination levels and lower transmission rates.”