Travelers Waiting Longer to Buy Plane Tickets

With pandemic uncertainty and discounted fares, many are booking flights only weeks before departing

By Jesse Geleynse

Published November 30, 2020

Read Time: 4 mins


Vacation and holiday travel planning used to be something customers tackled months in advance, as they shopped various

Vacation and holiday travel planning used to be something customers tackled months in advance, as they shopped various websites looking for the best deals and putting together their itineraries.

But, like many other aspects of life amid the COVID-19 pandemic, how people are traveling has shifted dramatically in the past eight months. In particular, many customers have been booking trips much closer to their departure dates than in years past.

“Typically airlines see a significant number of their bookings occur 21 or more days in advance,” said Henry Harteveldt, an aviation consultant and co-founder of the Atmosphere Research Group. “But because of COVID and the uncertainty that COVID has created—lockdowns, travel restrictions, quarantines and so on—passengers had become much more last-minute in their booking.”

Airlines make schedules based on the “booking curve,” a graph that “plots bookings against days-before-departure to show how a flight fills up over time,” according to industry consultant Tom Bacon.

For holiday periods it’s not uncommon for reservations to be made more than 30 days in advance, Harteveldt said. But now, numerous airlines have reported a boost in their “close-in bookings” – reservations made within that typical 21-day window..

In a statement from its third quarter earnings call, Southwest Airlines officials noted it “continues to experience modest improvements in close-in leisure passenger demand in October and bookings for November.”

“Airlines have become accustomed to a more last-minute type of booking, but this is playing havoc with their long-established models,” Harteveldt said. “Airlines have had to become used to a much more last-minute, close-in type of selling environment, and an environment where they are serving far more leisure passengers than business passengers.”

Southwest is one of many airlines to report a boost in close-in bookings. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

Travel agents are also experiencing the “close-in” trend. Bob Thompson of Pittsburgh-based Ambassador Travel said his firm is seeing a number of bookings within 30 days, which he said is “unusual.”

“(Normally) most of our people are having to pick their vacation or budget their money much further in advance – a couple of months and even four, five or six months would not be unusual,” said Thompson, whose agency specializes in family and high-end vacations and cruises. “But the things we are doing are fairly short notice.”

There could be an unexpected perk to the havoc the pandemic has wreaked upon the airlines — there are plenty of deals to be had.

“Waiting until the last minute usually means you’d be paying peak price, but that’s not true now because everything is on sale,” Thompson said.

In perhaps a sign of changes to come, several airline officials said they noticed some lengthening of the booking curve headed into the Thanksgiving holiday and into December.

“Although there is still quite a lot of uncertainty about the evolution of the coronavirus, we are starting to see the booking curve extend slightly into the upcoming Thanksgiving and December holiday travel period,” JetBlue President and Chief Operating Officer Joanna Geraghty said in an October press release.

United added 1,400 flights for the week of Thanksgiving as the airline anticipated it to be the busiest week of travel since the start of the pandemic. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

In an October conference call, Spirit Airlines Chief Commercial Officer Matt Klein said “…the booking curve is still materially shorter than normal but both it and our travel search curves have been progressively lengthening. We were pleasantly surprised with how October trended and bookings for the Thanksgiving period are certainly encouraging.”

United Airlines added 1,400 flights during the week of Thanksgiving while anticipating “the week of November 23 to be its busiest since March,” according to a company press release.

Harteveldt said it will take some time — and likely a successful vaccine — before travel patterns return to any semblance of “normal.” But he does think it will happen eventually.

“I think you will start to see leisure travel resume the pattern of being booked further in advance because the uncertainty in our society will be removed,” Harteveldt said. “So that means you’ll see a lot more people booking 21 days and out, and my hope is that next (year) we will be much closer to a more typical Thanksgiving.”

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