Travelers aren’t the only ones flying close to the sun this spring. The spring break holiday season makes March and April two of the busiest months for travel in the U.S.This year is expected to be one of the busiest spring break travel seasons ever, according to a recent forecast by the trade group Airlines for America. The expected surge in flyers is a big opportunity for the airlines, the first spring break season since the U.S. widely eliminated masking and testing requirements related to COVID-19.
Carriers Favor Reduced Capacity Over Cancellations
The busy spring break travel season could set airlines up for a successful summer, even though they’ve continued to struggle with pilot shortages and shrinking cost margins. While traveler demand is skyrocketing, several large legacy carriers are limiting the supply of seats and flight schedules. This is a cautious mindset from legacy carriers, who are focused on improving reliability after fliers found themselves drained by persistent delays, late cancellations, or extensive airport lines earlier in the year.
Shortages of spare parts and delays on new aircraft production from both Airbus SE and Boeing Co are also restricting airlines’ ability to bolster schedules. For example, Delta’s capacity for April is down 13.1% from their 2019 levels, with United down a similar 13.1% compared to their 2019 capacity. This decrease in flight volume by United and Delta is impacting availability for their hub states as well. Delta’s home base in Georgia is down nearly 200,000 seats (a 15.4% decrease in capacity) for April, while United’s home base, Illinois, is down 250,000 seats (a 20.1% decrease in capacity).
It’s worth noting that Delta reported higher revenues in 2022 than it did in 2019 due to strong demand, while American Airlines reported achieving record revenue in the fourth quarter of 2022, while flying 6.1% less capacity than they did in the fourth quarter of 2019. But while legacy carriers tighten the reins on capacity, pent-up demand is colliding with a worsening economic outlook – and it’s changing how consumers are spending for their holidays.
A Spring Break Season That (Literally) Broke The Bank
This spring break season will occur right after the collapse of two major U.S. banks in early March, the first bank collapse since the disastrous 2008 recession. Understandably, consumers are watching their spending amid the gloomy economic outlook. Though current predictions indicate this year will outperform 2022's spring break demand, the jury’s still out on whether the economic climate will push demand above 2019, or pre-pandemic levels.
For starters, there are signs that economic concerns are having a larger impact on travelers’ decision making this year than they did in 2022, with current spring break booking patterns suggesting more Americans will travel within driving distance to save on costs. Indeed, warm-weather destinations – the historical haven for spring breakers escaping winter temperatures – have seen the largest jump in prices, according to a recent analysis by Airlines Reporting Corp. With the price of airfares on the rise and financial concerns growing, low-cost carriers are taking the opportunity to bolster their schedules. Frontier’s capacity is up 28.5% for this April over 2019 levels, with Allegiant up 20.1% over 2019 capacity. In the case of Allegiant, warm-weather seekers benefit from the increase in scheduling. Florida, the home state of two of Allegiant’s focus cities, is a standout from a volume perspective, with an added 100,000 seats for April compared to 2019 levels.
The growing economic crisis created by the collapse has the added effect of making the capacity cuts from carriers a smart economic decision in addition to streamlined scheduling. Fewer flights means reduced operation costs, including less concern over labor costs for ground and flight crew. The ongoing pilot shortage has recently spiked the cost of salaries for flight crews, with Delta pilots securing an impressive 34% bump in pay. Fewer flights mean fewer costs, and for carriers still reeling from pandemic-related revenue losses, reduced capacity is a smart protective measure in a worsening economic environment.
The main takeaway for spring break this year is that carriers aren’t the only ones feeling the effects of the worsening economic climate – though with operations-related service cuts already, they may be considerably more prepared to deal with a potential downturn in demand. Meanwhile, low-cost carriers are rising to the occasion, and their bet on adding more seats for spring break could determine additional capacity or route expansions outside of the busy season. Ultimately, the added capacity could help ease the pricing pressure on travelers - though they may still need to hunt for the perfect spring break deal.